Erik Karlsson. Image by: Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images
Erik Karlsson’s identity as a player and person bleed together, giving us one of the sport’s most dynamic and unique characters on and off the ice.
Black Swan would have to do. Erik Karlsson and his girlfriend, Melinda Currey, wanted to wear something extravagant for this past Halloween. They needed to if they had any chance of topping the previous year’s costume, in which she was The Little Mermaid’s Ariel and Karlsson went all-out to become the evil sea witch Ursula, complete with purple skin. Halloween isn’t a huge deal in Karlsson’s native Sweden, but it means a lot to Currey in her hometown of Ottawa. Currey, who works in marketing, likes to flex her creative muscle, so every Halloween she dresses Karlsson however she wants. That includes doing him up as a giant cookie to her Cookie Monster one year. The things we do for love.
Currey ordered materials for their 2016 costumes but apparently not early enough, as they didn’t arrive on time. What were they going to dress up as? Karlsson won’t say, as they’ll save it for a future Halloween. This time, Currey outfitted him as Natalie Portman’s creepy, painted-faced ballerina from her Oscar-winning turn in the 2010 film Black Swan. The costume got rave reviews when Currey posted it on Instagram. Not bad for a last-minute scramble job.
And, in a way, the costume is a microcosm of what Karlsson does as a dynamic defenseman and captain of the Ottawa Senators. His smooth-skating game flows like water. He’s forever adaptable and easygoing. He can make snap decisions on the fly without panicking and make it look like he’s planned every stride. He’s that good. And it’s no coincidence. Some players split their personalities in two: at the rink and away from the rink. Drew Doughty, for example, mean-mugs and plays with ferocious intensity on the ice yet is one of the league’s goofiest, most fun-loving guys off it. But there’s only one version of Karlsson. His life bleeds into his game, which bleeds into his life, and back again.
That blended personality manifests itself again in the hallways of a Marriott hotel during the 2017 all-star weekend in Los Angeles. Karlsson, 26, is friendly, warm, breezy. He often shows up somewhere in designer clothes, long locks perfectly groomed, ready for a photo shoot, but today he rocks dishevelled hair and a hoodie just as confidently. He never acts like he’s doing you a favor by gracing you with his presence. He’s appreciative, quick to insist he has all the time in the world despite the fact he’s being pulled in multiple directions by reporters asking questions in English and Swedish. He adapts and thrives. He answers questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, occasionally pausing mid-sentence to wink at a friend or wave at a passing fan. He conducts himself exactly as we see him on the ice, where he’s the best offensive defenseman of the past 25 years. “This is who I was born to be, and this is the person that I am,” he said. “From what I’ve been told, I’m not that bad of a guy, so why would I change? And I’m not forcing anyone else to change, either. You’ve got to be who you are. Everybody who makes this league has done something good with their life. They’ve done the right things to get to where they are. You have to improve, and you’re always going to get better, but at the same time you can’t forget what brought you there and who got you there.”
That self-assuredness has birthed one of the most exciting players of his generation. Since Karlsson debuted in 2009-10, 16 months after Ottawa drafted him 15th overall in 2008, he’s produced four seasons of at least 66 points. That gives him four of the top 10 performances by any NHL defenseman over that span, including three of the top five. His 82 points in 2015-16 represent the highest single-season total of any defenseman since Brian Leetch had 85 in 1995-96 (see sidebar). Karlsson’s effort came in the lowest-scoring NHL season since the Dead Puck Era bottomed out in 2003-04, while Leetch’s 85 points came in the highest-scoring season of the past 21.
What Karlsson has done offensively is staggering. It’s helped him win two Norris Trophies, with a runner-up finish in 2015-16 to boot. Last season, he finished tied for fourth among all NHL players, not just defensemen, in points. That gave him a second career top-10 finish among NHL scorers. The three other blueliners to accomplish that feat are Hall of Famers, each unveiled during all-star weekend among the NHL’s top 100 players of all-time: Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey.
Karlsson, then, has begun building a legacy as one of the greatest offensive defensemen in hockey history, though he won’t pay too much attention to his accolades just yet. “Do you know what? I haven’t, and I won’t allow myself to,” he said. “I’m still a young guy in this league, I think, even though I’m not that young. I take it season by season, and I try to do the best I can every year. That’s what I worry about. ‘Alfie’ (longtime Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson) actually told me this: ‘At the end of your career, whether you worry about your legacy or not, it’s going to be there. All you can do is take care of the time you have at hand, and that’s about it.’ ”
But it’s not like every fan, pundit and awards voter embraces Karlsson as an elite talent. There’s an old guard who feel Karlsson is a walking, talking cry for a separate NHL award, handed out to the league’s best offensive defenseman. They believe shutdown blueliners like Tampa Bay’s Anton Stralman or San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic should earn hardware specifically for their defensive exploits. They gleefully post GIFs of Karlsson being torched in 1-on-1 battles or getting caught pinching in the offensive zone. They point out that the Norris Trophy is supposed to go to the league’s top “defense player who throughout the season demonstrates the best all-around ability at the position.”
Karlsson defenders, however, mount a counterargument involving that same definition. What is all-around ability anyway? If we measure it as overall impact and the ability to drive possession, to ensure the shot attempts skew strongly toward the other team’s net, then Karlsson is an all-around maven at his position. Search for footage of him stapling opponents to the boards or crushing them in open ice and you’ll come up empty. But Karlsson is a master of using his stick to break up passing lanes and chasing down attackers with his speed. He’s the hockey equivalent of a point guard in basketball, as the puck is almost always on his stick. If the other team simply doesn’t get chances to attack the Senators’ net very often when Karlsson is on the ice, isn’t he then a legitimate defensive asset? His teammates believe so. “He’s really good defensively,” Mike Hoffman said. “Even in practice, he’s for sure top-two if you’re going down on a 2-on-1. He’s one of the hardest to pass through. He uses his skills very well. He can read plays extremely well.”
The Senators allow far more shot attempts on their net when Karlsson is off the ice. Per hockeyreference.com, Karlsson’s career 5-on-5 Corsi relative to his teammates is 4.2, meaning in a typical season he’s 4.2 percent better in possession than Ottawa’s team average. Last season, his relative mark was 8.0 percent. The Senators bleed opposing scoring chances and struggle to generate attempts when he’s not on the ice. He boosts his partners, too. Longtime tandem mate Marc Methot’s possession numbers nosedive without Karlsson. Per corsica.hockey, Karlsson has the sixth-best 5-on-5 Corsi per 60 of every defenseman who has played at least 5,000 minutes since 2009-10. In Corsi Against per 60, he ranks 56th. He’s 14th in overall Corsi, blending offense and defense for the “all-around” representation. Methot accurately labels Karlsson a “shot-blocking machine.” He was tied for second in the NHL in blocks as of the all-star break. Methot praises Karlsson’s transition ability, too. “If there’s a turnover, not only did he create half those turnovers, but when there is one, he’s so effective at jumping up,” Methot said. “I can’t stress how quick and effective he is, how efficient he is at turning pucks over and cutting guys off and cutting lanes off. If you haven’t seen Erik play in awhile, maybe it’s a good idea to watch a couple of his games before you start to critique him. He really has dramatically improved his defensive play, in my opinion.”
Is Karlsson one of the best pure defensive players in the NHL? No. But the Norris doesn’t go to the league’s best smotherer of offense. It goes to the defenseman who does everything well. Karlsson likes to think he does, and he’s worked at improving in his own end over the years. He points out that the Senators have entrusted him to play against other team’s best offensive players for six of his eight seasons. He says it would be wrong to call him a terrific defensive player, though, because if he was he would’ve gotten to a Stanley Cup by now. He’s also not overestimating his ability to influence his team’s fate, by the way, considering he’s averaged more than 27 minutes a game for each of his past five seasons. And he cares about defense – for emotional reasons. “Just knowing the letdown of people around the locker room, even if they don’t say anything, if you do something wrong and it costs you the game, and if you don’t play hard enough in both ends, that just speaks for itself,” Karlsson said. “And that’s taught me to really work hard and care about everything on the ice. You play for each other.”
“He looks loose, he looks relaxed when you’re talking to him off the ice . . . when it comes to being on the ice and in the dressing room, he’s very demanding from his teammates."
That’s a mentality befitting a leader. In most ways, though, Karlsson doesn’t fit the profile of a typical captain. He can’t match the square-jawed stoicism Shea Weber showed in Nashville. He’ll never be confused with Jonathan Toews’ ‘Captain Serious.’ He can’t robotically dispense clichés like Connor McDavid can. Karlsson only knows how to be himself, which is friendly, approachable and sometimes a bit brash. It’s different from what most captains offer but, from any accounts out of the Senators room, it works. “He’s been terrific to coach,” said Guy Boucher, who took over as Ottawa’s coach this season. “Since the summer we’ve had many talks together, and he’s been an unbelievable leader in all aspects. He’s been defending so hard. He’s on time. He takes young guys aside. Everything you hope for from a leader, he’s shown it. And under pressure he’s been the guy. He’s been buying into everything we’ve wanted to do. I can’t ask for better. I really can’t.”
Methot describes Karlsson as a confident leader, a superb communicator and mostly a happy-go-lucky person – but insists no one equate that with being too laid back. “He’s intense,” Methot said. “He looks loose, he looks relaxed when you’re talking to him off the ice. When you watch him on social media he seems like a down-to-earth guy, and he is, but when it comes to being on the ice and in the dressing room, he’s very demanding from his teammates. He expects a certain level of play from every member of the team.”
Karlsson will speak up if he sees something he doesn’t like, and teammates respect him for it, Methot said. It’s not that Karlsson always wears his emotions on his sleeve. It’s that, when he does feel emotion, he’s comfortable showing it. He’s not interested in perpetuating the Swedish stereotype of doing everything one can to avoid standing out from the group. He’s comfortable being the center of attention. He’s open to sharing stories about himself – even something as personal as his proposal.
He and Currey had bonded over pizza. Karlsson estimates they ate it at least once a week. So, he figured it would only be appropriate to involve a delicious pie when he popped the question this past November. He contacted an Ottawa pizza joint and arranged for them to plant an engagement ring in a pizza box. Currey got the surprise of a lifetime when she popped open what she thought was merely dinner. Karlsson was atypically nervous because, believe it or not, the whole thing transpired out on the street in Central Ottawa with a bunch of people watching. “I didn’t cry,” he said. “She did, which I think stopped me from crying, because you can’t have two people crying at the same time. It just turns sour. But it was a great day. The pizza part meant a lot. It’s something that’s always been involved in our lives and probably always will.”
Good luck digging a story like that out of most captains. Karlsson does everything his own way, and it’s a deliberate philosophical approach. He doesn’t believe in compartmentalizing hockey and the rest of one’s life. He embraces the manner in which they can mix together and influence each other. “We play hockey for a living, but we’re still living life,” he said. “You take those life experiences with you into your work, and that’s what I’m trying to do. If I can’t be a good person at home, I can’t be a good person at the rink.”