Erik Karlsson may not be Olympic-bound, but he’s back

Erik Karlsson may not be Olympic-bound, but he's back
Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

In the grand scheme of things, the latest Erik Karlsson news is kind of a bummer. While he’s being logical, it’s still a downer that Karlsson believes it isn’t “feasible” to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics. At least, if COVID protocols (particularly possible 3-5 week quarantines) don’t loosen up.

“I don’t understand why anyone would agree to take the risks of being in that position that we will be in once we board that plane to China,” Karlsson said, via NBC Sports’ Sheng Peng. “You send 250-plus guys, including trainers and staff, someone’s gonna get dinged.”

Again, that’s a bummer. I’d probably express similar thoughts in a similar situation, but there’s still the feeling of what could have been.

But that’s where there’s a silver lining. After some troubling seasons with the Sharks, Erik Karlsson is looking like Erik Karlsson again.

The flashy stuff that probably won’t continue

Look, it’s always easier to notice a breakthrough — or, in Karlsson’s case, a rebound — when the simple stats pile up. Karlsson hasn’t disappointed so far through the first quarter-ish of the Sharks’ season.

Through 23 games, Karlsson scored eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points. That already matches last season’s goals total, and he’s only four points behind his 2020-21 pace, when Karlsson produced 22 points over 52 games.

Just as delightfully, there’s some of that explosiveness he’s been missing.

He’s even unleashed a booming slapper every now and then.

It’s no surprise that Bob Boughner believes that Erik Karlsson’s shooting the puck as well as he’s ever seen the defenseman do so. That’s because he’s also been lucky.

So far, Karlsson generated eight goals on 55 shots on goal, translating to a 14.5 shooting percentage. That number would be a little high for most forwards; even talented defensemen don’t shoot like that over the long haul.

During his career, Erik Karlsson’s never put up a shooting percentage higher than 7.8, and his career average is 6.6

With that in mind, expect Karlsson’s simplest stats to simmer down. The news is mostly good, however. That’s because, as you dig deeper, there’s a lot more to like about Karlsson’s hot start than raw goals and assists.

So far this season, Erik Karlsson looks elite again — maybe worth a Norris nomination

No doubt, Erik Karlsson will improve his chances of staying in the Norris Trophy race if he can keep up that scoring pace. That’s true even though Norris voters have become far more sophisticated than looking at points, broad assumptions, and plus/minus.

By a wide variety of metrics, Erik Karlsson is much-improved from last season. Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts capture that with the most visual panache.

In 2020-21, Karlsson didn’t help the Sharks much on offense, and was a disaster on defense.

via Evolving Hockey

This season, Karlsson is back to elite offensive form while almost breaking even on defense.

via Evolving Hockey

Excitingly, Karlsson isn’t just looking good “for a Sharks player.” By Evolving Hockey’s expected goals above replacement, Karlsson ranks third-best in the NHL, behind only Cale Makar and Auston Matthews.

via Evolving Hockey

Impressive, right?

More of the nuts and bolts of the Erik Karlsson redemption

Now, it’s worth noting that the sample size is still small. That thought could be especially pertinent if rest is what helped Erik Karlsson rebound as much as anything else.

Because, in a lot of ways, that feels like the most reasonable catalyst for this turnaround.

No doubt, Erik Karlsson has dealt with injuries. Even back to days when Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was calling for crime scene investigations.

Time to heal up likely helped Karlsson, possibly a lot. When you dig into other specifics, things remain interesting.

Photos like these even soften the blow of Karlsson losing his luscious locks.

Carolina Hurricanes v San Jose Sharks
(Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)
  • His ice time is slightly down from last season (23:36) to 22:27 per game in 2021-22. As great as Karlsson has been, maybe it’s best to manage his minutes like this? That’s a question for Boughner to mull, as it might be tempting to demand more of a good thing (i.e. more Karlsson).
  • On one hand, Karlsson’s seen a slight boost in defensive zone starts (42.7 to 46.7). On the other hand, the Sharks can deploy Mario Ferraro and Brent Burns in tougher situations.
  • That’s, in part, because Karlsson gives the Sharks the luxury of a Karlsson – Jacob Middleton pairing.

At even-strength, Karlsson’s logged 349:39 TOI with Middleton, vs. just 86:27 without him.

Perhaps the Sharks unearthed a gem in Middleton, but at the moment, it only makes Erik Karlsson more impressive. Middleton, 25, was a seventh-round pick (210th overall in 2014), and came into this season with just 14 games of NHL experience scattered over three seasons.

Putting up elite numbers with a partner that unproven? Again, impressive.

And, hey, if Karlsson skips the Olympics, maybe he’ll be that much fresher for the rest of the season? Sweden’s loss could be a nice gain for Karlsson and the Sharks — and maybe influence the Norris race.

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.

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