Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.