There has been much excitement in the City of Ottawa over the potential return of defenseman Erik Karlsson, while there are also many who have suggested that they hold him back for the playoffs, and not play him since Ottawa only needs 2 points in their next 3 games (or a Winnipeg regulation loss tonight) to clinch a playoff spot.
I say “Phooey” (or some other term, but we are not supposed to swear).
There are 3 huge reasons why the Senators should not hold Karlsson back, as long as in his mind he is ready to go, and many factors involved in those 2 big reasons:
1) He needs action pre-playoffs – As good as he is, Karlsson will not step in at full speed and he will need a couple of games to get his impeccable timing back. I am not saying he needs to come in and play 25 minutes in his first game, but he needs significant minutes to prove to himself that his repaired Achilles tendon can withstand game action. You don’t want any doubts in his mind heading into the first playoff game, and you also don’t want him to spend the first 3 or 4 games in the playoffs getting himself back up to speed. He also needs to determine what parts of his game he has to throttle back on, since he likely won’t get to Norris-trophy level in two games. There are going to be aspects of his game that don’t come back so quickly and he needs to figure those out in regular season games and not discover them in the playoffs. And if for some reason he has pushed it too fast, then it is better to find that out in a regular season game than a playoff game.
2) Just making the playoffs isn’t enough, is it? – It will be a great accomplishment to just make the playoffs, but if Winnipeg loses and Ottawa limps in, then they will be 8th place fodder for the Penguins, who have a dynamic team and will likely roll over whoever they face in the first round, whether it be the Senators, Rangers, Islanders or even the Jets. There is a big difference between the Penguins and either the Bruins, Canadiens or Leafs who will be in the 2 seed, and even bigger gap to the Capitals who have the 3 seed locked up. Ottawa would be best served to make any an all efforts to try to get past the Rangers into the 7 seed, and even better, past the Islanders into the 6th seed. The Senators have the control on whether or not they can finish 7th, and they would need a bit of help to finish 6th. Whatever they need to do to avoid playing the Penguins, they should do. That means playing Karlsson in Thursday and Saturday, and perhaps giving him Sunday off depending on the situation that presents itself.
Everyone else will be done on Saturday, with Boston-Ottawa being the final game of the season on Sunday, as the makeup game for the tragic events in Boston on April 15th. Ottawa will know what they have to do, and if they have at least 7th clinched, they can maybe afford to rest Karlsson, depending how he feels.
3) Coach needs to find the Best Lineup – Although Karlsson’s return will be a great boost, it is not as simple as plug and play when it comes to the team. It will also force Coach Paul MacLean to experiment to find the best combinations on the blue line. While Karlsson will play with Methot for the most part, this will be the first time MacLean had had all hands on deck, with Jared Cowen and Karlsson in the lineup at the same time this season. MacLean will have 3 games to determine what lineup he starts the playoffs with, and who will be the odd men out. If yesterday’s practice is any indication, Eric Gryba will get the first opportunity to show he should stay in the lineup with Patrick Wiercioch, Mike Lundin and Andre Benoit sitting out. Wiercioch will likely get his shot in one of the two remaining games, to show that he has a fit in the lineup. As for Lundin and Benoit, they will likely be used only if necessary, due to injury.
I think Karlsson is too much of a competitor to sit out, and once he gets back into game action, he is back for good. The biggest hurdle will be taking that first hit by an opposing player and realizing that he is good to go, then the shackles will be off. He also needs time to discover what he can and cannot do.
As long as he is mentally ready to get back, there is no reason to hold him back and save him for the playoffs. Doing so could be harmful not only to him, but the Senators as well.