SAN JOSE, Calif. — Erik Karlsson arrived in San Jose during training camp a year ago as the potential difference-maker who could push the Sharks over the top and make them champions for the first time in franchise history.
An adjustment period and then a groin injury that sidelined him for much of the second half of the season and slowed him for the playoffs limited Karlsson’s impact in his first year with the Sharks.
But after getting an eight-year, $92 million contract in the offseason, Karlsson is now a centerpiece for a Sharks team undergoing an adjustment after losing captain Joe Pavelski to Dallas in free agency.
”It’s a big difference,” Karlsson said. ”Last year was a big change for myself individually and this team as well with me coming in as late as I did. I think this year is totally different. We’re all familiar with each other, we know what to expect. It will be easier to get into the swing of things.”
When Karlsson got into the swing of things last season he was one of the best players in the game. During a stretch from December to January, Karlsson showed he still has the ability to be the best defenseman in the NHL. He had points in 15 straight games that he played and had 25 points total in that span.
Karlsson then got hurt Jan. 16 in Arizona. He returned to take part in All-Star weekend in San Jose but had to wait two more weeks to play a real game. He got hurt again Feb. 26 in Boston and didn’t play again until the regular-season finale.
While Karlsson still wasn’t at full speed when he returned, he managed to make a major impact in the playoffs. He had 14 assists in 19 games and also scored two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 of the Western Conference final against St. Louis. The Sharks then lost the next three games with Karlsson hurt for parts of Games 4 and 5 and not even making the trip to St. Louis for the final game of the season.
”He’s one of the most dominant players in the world when he’s healthy and playing his game,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”We saw that during stretches last year when he was healthy. It makes everybody better, the team better. I’m excited, knock on wood, to have a full season with him healthy and ready to go.”
Here’s a look at the Sharks’ season:
WHO’S HERE: D Dalton Proud, F Jonny Brodzinski, assistant coach Bob Boughner.
KEY PLAYERS: Martin Jones is coming off the worst season of his career, allowing 2.53 goals per game and ranking 52nd out of 56 goalies with at least 20 starts with an .896 save percentage a year ago. Better play in the net will go a long way toward San Jose’s success this season. Forwards Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier emerged with career-best seasons with each reaching the 30-goal mark for the first time in their careers. With Pavelski and his 38 goals gone, those two will be counted on to do even more offensively this season.
OUTLOOK: The Sharks have one of the most potent defenses led by former Norris Trophy winners Karlsson and Brent Burns. They need shutdown defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic to bounce back from a down year after allowing their most goals in a season in 22 years. GM Doug Wilson also didn’t do much to replace the production of Pavelski, Donskoi and Nyquist up front, hoping at least a few of a group of untested players featuring Brodzinski, Dylan Gambrell, Sasha Chmelevski and Alex True can fill that scoring void.
PREDICTION: The Sharks finished second in the Pacific Division with 101 points and then made the run to conference final against eventual champion St. Louis. With Karlsson and Burns leading the defense and a strong core of veteran forwards featuring new captain Logan Couture, 40-year-old Joe Thornton, 30-goal scorer Evander Kane, Hertl and Meier, the Sharks have all the ingredients for another deep run.