After watching reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, his impact on every shift he plays, as well as statistics so far this season, he has to be the odds on favorite to repeat his standing as the league’s best defenseman. In fact, you have to put him in the conversation for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
While other defensemen are having standout start to their season, such as Andrei Markov, Tobias Enstrom, Alex Pietrangelo, Zdeno Chara and Kris Letang among others, they are not in Karlsson’s league yet. I had been mulling about whether it was too early in the season to start proclaiming Karlsson as the odds-on-favorite, but a couple of articles have forced my hand and made me clarify things.
Kevin Allen of USA Today called Pietrangelo the favorite, which led to our brother Fansided site, BleedinBlue, to jump all over that and also include Kevin Shattenkirk as another favorite.
So while they make solid cases, here is the case for Karlsson to repeat:
While points are one aspect when considering the top defenseman, there are a number of other stats that should be looked at. Granted, Karlsson won the Norris last year based primarily on offensive output, but he was so far ahead of the field they didn’t have much choice but to give it to him on that basis. While in a shortened season such as this one there might not be a runaway winner for the scoring race among defensemen, other things must be taken into consideration. Here is a breakdown of some major stats for each of the early season contenders:
%GF = Percentage of all goals for by the team in all situations (excluding shootout) that the player was on the ice for
%GA = Percentage of all goals against the team in all situations (excluding shootout) that the player was on the ice for
As you can see, Karlsson is not the outright leader in all of the categories, but is probably the most all-around set of numbers.
The knocks on Karlsson last season was that he was all offense and didn’t have a physical aspect to his game. Well, aside from Chara, he has been credited with a comparable number of hits. His turnovers have been a problem in the past, and his giveaways are higher than the rest, but that is due to the inordinate amount of puck possession he demonstrates. Take into account the fact that he leads all NHL defensemen in takeaways and his net is +2, better than all of the other leading candidates. He has been on the ice for a lower percentage of goals against his team than any contender except Shattenkirk, has only been on the ice for 1/3 of Ottawa’s goals against despite playing almost 1/2 of the games. He has the best plus/minus among the contenders and has the lowest ratio of power play points among the listed players.
People said last season that he didn’t kill penalties, and they were right. He averaged about 33 seconds per game on the penalty kill. He has more than quadrupled that total so far.
In addition to statistical analysis, there is also the overall impact a player has on the game. No defenseman in the league leads the rush as much as Karlsson, and often times he is the first forechecker in the offensive zone. Yet, he rarely gets caught up due to his speed and ability to recover. His defense has improve immensely from last season, and he rarely gets beat one on one or to the outside any more, as was one of the biggest knocks on him early in his career.
Last year, you could argue that he snuck up on teams and they weren’t really sure how to defend him. However, the teams he is playing against have had ample opportunity to game plan for him and still most don’t have an answer for his unique abilities.
Some people, and I was among them, wondered how Karlsson would handle the pressure of being the target, and losing his security blanket in Filip Kuba. He hasn’t missed a beat despite playing on a depleted blue line without much other offensive ability. He has a target on his back as teams think they can push him around because of his smaller stature, and he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Someone may end up taking the Norris from him this season, but it isn’t going to be easy. I would lay money on the fact that if he stays healthy and plays 45 game or more, that he will be standing on the podium at the NHL Awards again this June (or July) to accept that honour once again.
And I would also take odds that he will be in the conversation for the Hart trophy as well, and if he continues this trend of progression, will likely win one of those in his career also.