Erik Karlsson. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
On Sunday night, Erik Karlsson had a game for the ages. With 23 shot attempts – not to mention the overtime winner – the Ottawa Senators rearguard may have had the greatest single game effort of the advanced statistics era.
It’s been said that the best way to defend is to have the puck on your stick. If that’s the case, you may be able to start engraving Erik Karlsson’s name on the Norris Trophy once again.
Karlsson, 24, is in just his sixth season in the NHL and may be on his way to his second nod as the league’s best defenseman. Some have called his defensive play a detriment, but it’s often masked by his incredible offensive game. If Sunday’s game between Karlsson’s Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks is any indication, there’s almost no stopping Karlsson.
TSN’s Travis Yost pointed out late in Sunday's contest that Karlsson may have posted what was the greatest advanced stats game since statistics like Corsi and Fenwick have come into widespread use. It was great in the sense that during the minutes Karlsson logged the Senators attempted 52 shots on goal. During those same minutes, the Canucks were only able to muster 17 attempts towards the Ottawa goal.
What’s more is that of those 52 attempts, 23 came off the stick of Karlsson, including the game-winning goal in overtime. For some added perspective, the next highest total on the Senators was Bobby Ryan, who had 10 attempts. To more than double the figure of his team’s star forward is an incredible feat of puck possession, not to mention that Karlsson accomplished the feat from the blueline.
The thing is, though, we may have been able to see this coming.
If you can think back to the 2012-13 lockout, you may remember Karlsson, then 22, made some noise in Finland’s best league as a member of Jokerit Helsinki. In 30 games, the swift-skating defenseman posted nine goals and 34 points and was the highest-scoring defenseman in the league (28th of all players) despite playing half the season. If his gaudy totals weren’t enough, his final game in Finland was one for the ages – one goal, four assists, and 17 shots on goal. Unlike the NHL, there doesn't exist an event summary for Karlsson's final SM-Liiga game, so we can't be sure of exactly what occurred in the way of shot attempts. Whatever it was, though, it appears Karlsson was ready to unleash the same force on the NHL last night.
While there are those that will continue to say he leaves much to be desired in his own end no matter what he does offensively, it's hard to deny there's a Gretzky-esque quality to the way Karlsson has been able to drive play. Namely, if the puck is always on Karlsson’s stick, much like it was last night, does it really matter if he isn’t a shutdown defender? After all, it appears Vancouver had an awfully hard time getting the puck when the Swede was on the ice.
Over the course of his career, Karlsson has played nearly 6,000 5-on-5 minutes. As a member of less than outstanding Ottawa teams, he’s produced 21 shot attempts per 20 minutes of ice time, driven play, and out-possessed opponents on a near nightly basis. There is little doubt he’s the face of the Senators, and possibly the best defenseman in the game.
Less than a half-decade into his career, it’s incredible to imagine what could be coming from Karlsson if he continues on this trajectory. He’s had seasons of 19 and 20 goals and he’s on pace for 21 this season; could 30 tallies be in the future? Whatever comes from Karlsson, one thing is for certain: when it comes to advanced statistics, he’s the current king.