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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.

Erik Karlsson is back to being Erik Karlsson

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When it comes to special players like Erik Karlsson, really good doesn’t always feel like enough, and patience isn’t always easy to come by. It’s not always easy to accept that a player needs time to adjust to a new team, as he is with the San Jose Sharks.

And talk about regression and bounces eventually going his way? Boring.

Well, whether such talk is boring or illuminating (or both?), it sure seems like … *cough* the bounces are starting to go Karlsson’s way.

The Sharks are now on a five-game winning streak, and have also won seven of their last eight.

Karlsson’s heating up, too, as he extended a six-game point streak with an assist in Tuesday’s 4-0 win against the Minnesota Wild. He’s now at seven assists over those six contests, pushing his season totals to a more potent (though not yet truly “Karlsson-esque”) 23 points in 35 games.

Those 23 points in 35 games represent a .66-point-per-game pace, short of his career average with the Senators (.83), which went as high as a point per contest. But a lot of that can be chalked up to some growing pains, and some bad luck.

Karlsson himself agrees that he’s starting to settle in, as Paul Gackle of the Mercury News reports.

“I’m feeling better and better,” Karlsson said. “We’re playing good hockey, at times. We’re progressing as a team. That’s the most important part. Whether I feel like I’ve played my best hockey yet, I don’t think so. I have a lot more to give.”

Some of the reactions to playing with Karlsson echo the Boston Bruins being at-first bewildered when Jaromir Jagr would send unthinkable passes their way, and surely how Sharks players felt when Joe Thornton first arrived, so it’s funny to read Thornton himself describe San Jose players needing some time to realize that “whoa, he can make that play.”

(Feel free to picture that “whoa” in Keanu Reeves’ voice. I know I did.)

But maybe some of this big jump comes from Karlsson feeling confident enough to call his shot. Perhaps Karlsson needed some time to adjust from being “the guy” in Ottawa to “the new guy” in San Jose.

In fact, he’s piling up a pretty astounding number of shots lately.

Looking at his full season, Karlsson has 122 shots on goal over these 35 games, an average of 3.49. Compare that to 2017-18, when he finished with just 196 SOG in 71 games, or “just” 2.76 per night. Looking at Hockey Reference’s listings, he’s only averaged more than 3.49 SOG per game during two of his 10 seasons.

Those pucks have been piling up even more lately. Karlsson has 48 SOG in nine November games, including a nine-SOG night (in a win against Chicago on Sunday), six in Tuesday’s contest, and eight against Dallas on Dec. 7.

For some perspective: Nathan MacKinnon has 151 SOG in 34 games, good for 4.441 per game, while SOG leader Jack Eichel has 152 in 34 (4.34 per game), while Karlsson’s 48 SOG in nine games presents a 5.33 average. Wow.

All of that shooting hasn’t resulted in goals, but can lead to great things, including rebounds, faceoffs in the attacking zone, and generally rubber going the right way.

Personally, it feels a bit reminiscent of Brent Burns eventually seeing his career soar to new heights in San Jose, and under Peter DeBoer. Has DeBoer found some innovative ways to work Karlsson into the mix, ideally without taking away from Burns? It’s something to watch as the season goes along, or beyond, if the Sharks end up extending Karlsson.

(Conversely, will the Sharks end up being too reliant on point shots? Either way, it’s a pretty sweet “problem” to have.)

One other thing to watch: Will Karlsson continue to get so many of his attempts on net? Marcus White for NBC Sports California provided a deep breakdown of Karlsson’s hot streak heading into Tuesday’s game, noting that defenders haven’t had much success blocking Karlsson’s attempts as of late.

This post’s headline reflects the feeling many had for a while this season: that Karlsson wasn’t himself. That hasn’t always been fair – his underlying numbers were outstanding, and remain that way – but it’s nonetheless refreshing to see Karlsson racking up points again.

The ascent of other Pacific Division teams (the Flames, Ducks, and Oilers are all hot, too) might obscure some of the rise of Karlsson and the Sharks, but the bottom line is that this team is starting to look as scary as many of us expected heading into 2018-19.

It won’t be such a welcome sight for opponents.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Senators GM: ‘Priority’ to re-sign Erik Karlsson, ‘no rash decisions’ coming

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As he stood at the podium on Thursday with the Ottawa Senators’ bye week over, general manager Pierre Dorion said he still had hope for the playoffs.

He also laid out the scenarios for the second half that would potentially get the Senators into the postseason. In looking at the last four seasons and the point totals of the teams that grabbed the final spot in the East, Ottawa would need 57 points in their final 39 games to hit that number of 95 points.

That’s a tall ask for this Senators team. Dorion noted they would have to go 28-11-1, 27-10-3, 26-9-5 or 25-8-7 to have a shot. But then it hit him. “We have to be patient, and I can tell you that no rash decisions will be made,” he said. “We have to be realistic and understand our situation. If we don’t make the playoffs we have to start planning for the future, and that might me to take one step backwards to take two steps forward.”

Do you see this Senators team getting 57 points from 39 games when they’ve only managed 39 points in their first 43 games? They’re a negative possession team that is bottom-five on both the power play and penalty kill and their goaltenders have combined for a .907 even strength save percentage. Doing a complete 180-degree turn would be a monstrous accomplishment. It’s time to look forward.

Mark Stone and Cody Ceci are restricted free agents this summer, and there are a couple of players making big money who will be looking for a raise in 2019 — Matt Duchene, Derick Brassard and, of course, Erik Karlsson.

[Karlsson deserves every penny he can get, and he knows it]

Brassard’s name has been out there and flipping Duchene a few months after trading away Kyle Turris for him would be an interesting development. The big one will be Karlsson, who’s already stated publicly that he’s going to get what he feels he’s worth in his next contract. That’s something that could prove tricky for a Senators franchise whose owner isn’t known for shelling out the big bucks for players.

“Our first priority with Erik is to sign him. He’s a special player, but Wayne Gretzky got traded,” Dorion said. “If a team offers you an offer you can’t turn down, you listen. But our first priority is to sign Erik Karlsson and Erik Karlsson to be a Senator for life.”

After coming within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season, it’s all come crashing down hard for the Senators. If the slide continues and Dorion starts selling off assets with an eye toward the future, how Will Karlsson feel about that? He won’t want to be a part of a sinking ship, not at 27, and not with a monster contract coming his way within a year’s time.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.