- Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson's 69 points in 52 games is impressive. But just as impressive are the micro-stats behind that stat.
Karlsson just skated in his seventh All-Star Game, his first since 2019. He’s on pace for 109 points, which would make him the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to top the century scoring mark.
So during the All-Star break, I asked SPORTLOGiQ for a complete list of micro-stats where the defenseman is top-10 in his position.
It’s a long list.
These micro-stats are small brushstrokes which explain, or paint, the larger portrait of the two-time Norris Trophy winner’s return to dominance.
Let’s start with ... Karlsson’s defense?
Karlsson is not known for his defense. But he excels in a number of different defensive areas, both with his feet and smarts.
Karlsson isn’t quite top-10 in these rate stats, but his ranks here are impressive considering they’re out of 199 qualified defensemen, 300-plus 5-on-5 minutes.
Essentially, if there’s a loose puck, chances are that Karlsson is winning the race to it. And he’s an alert defender, you can count on his stick in passing lanes to block opposition passes.
Karlsson is not well-rounded defensively -- at a relatively-slight 6-foot and 190 pounds, he’s not going to win a lot of puck battles, just for example -- but don’t let anybody tell you that he can’t defend.
You just have to put him in a position where you’re accentuating his defensive strengths and covering his defensive weaknesses.
As of the All-Star break, Karlsson was topping all NHL defensemen with 5.0 Zone Exits Per 20 at 5-on-5.
There isn’t a defenseman more proficient in the league at getting the puck out of the defensive zone, be it with his feet or via a pass or off the glass.
The puck leaves the zone when Karlsson is on the ice -- that’s good defense.
Karlsson, of course, is the last guy that you expect to just fire the puck off the glass and turn it over. More on that later. Instead, once he gets the puck in the defensive zone, he’s thinking offense.
Per SPORTLOGiQ, stretch passes are “any pass from inside the blueline that is completed beyond the center ice red line.”
What’s interesting about Karlsson’s current dominance in this department?
He was 91st among 177 qualified NHL defensemen in Stretch Pass Attempts and 108th in Stretch Pass Completions last season.
I think that’s more systemic than anything: Last year, a more defensive Sharks squad in general didn’t try as many stretch passes.
It’s open season for Karlsson now, and he’s taking advantage of it.
The stretch pass isn’t Karlsson’s only tool to transition the puck up from zone to zone.
Sometimes, he’ll just stickhandle it through you.
Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen with 3.01 Open-Ice Dekes Per 20 at 5-on-5.
This stickhandling mastery extends itself to the offensive zone, where there’s a lot less space to negotiate.
Karlsson has a reputation for being able to stickhandle in a phone booth, and his position-leading 1.29 OZ Dekes Per 20 at 5-on-5 is testament to that.
This prowess also allows Karlsson to dominate the puck in the offensive zone. He’s fifth among NHL defensemen with 00:24 OZ Possession Per 20.
Simply put, the puck feels like it’s on a string for Karlsson, especially this year.
Last season, he was 29th among all NHL blueliners in OZ Possession.
Karlsson appears as comfortable as he ever has in his career with the puck in the offensive zone.
Ultimately, what makes Karlsson so dangerous is what he does with the puck when he’s in the OZ.
He’s the proverbial fox in the henhouse.
With impunity, Karlsson is either distributing the puck into dangerous scoring areas or shooting from them himself.
It’s worth noting that he was 28th in Slot Shots and 82nd in Forecheck Chances last season.
Does Karlsson have more of a green light offensively this year? Or is his offensive explosion somewhat systemic, a credit to new head coach David Quinn?
“I don't think I've got more green light now than I have in the past. It's just the way that we play now,” Karlsson shared. “It’s obviously more suitable to my game and other guys’ game and I think our offensive numbers this year have been pretty solid from the start.”
The bump in Karlsson’s stretch passes and scoring chances is telling.
For what it’s worth, the Sharks are eighth in the NHL right now with 2.75 Goals Per 60 at 5-on-5. They were worst in the league in this category last season.
Of course, their defensive numbers have suffered this year, but that’s another story for another time.
Karlsson Is Karlsson Once Again
Perhaps three micro-stats, more than any others, represent Karlsson’s dominance better than other numbers.
Karlsson is fifth among all NHL defensemen with 1:47 Total Possession Per 20. So he’s controlling the puck in all three zones.
The other two micro-stats are favorites of current Montreal Canadiens’ director of hockey analytics and ex-Sharks scout/SPORTLOGiQ vice president Christopher Boucher.
According to the third-party hockey data outlet, used by at least 30 NHL teams, Offense-Generating Plays “are made up of all plays that lead to scoring chances. In other words, they’re plays that move the puck into high danger areas or situations, recovering pucks for your team, and putting high quality shot attempts on net.”
Possession-Driving Plays are defined as “transitioning the puck up the ice under control, meaning not tossing it up the boards and hoping to win it back.”
Karlsson is third among all NHL defensemen with 4.62 Offense-Generating Plays Per 20 at 5-on-5. And he’s tops with 22.9 Possession-Driving Plays Per 20.
The Offense-Generating Plays are tell-tale signs of Karlsson’s return to form: Last year, he was 13th in the NHL in this all-encompassing offensive stat. In 2020-21, 22nd and 2019-20, 16th.
So Karlsson, in those years, was still good offensively, but maybe not quite elite.
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So good offense, imperfect defense, net result, an overpaid defenseman that no other team will take off your hands.
This season? World-class offense, imperfect defense, net result, perhaps a third Norris Trophy, and for the first time in years, legitimate trade interest in Karlsson, despite his advancing age (32) and the four years left in his contract at $11.5 million AAV.
So is there still any doubt?
Be it because of better health, happiness on and off the ice, Quinn, the departure of fellow puck-dominant defenseman Brent Burns, or, as Karlsson himself joked, his Warrior stick or hamburgers.
Or (almost) all of the above?
Erik Karlsson is Erik Karlsson once again.