Sharks

Why Erik Karlsson's vision, deception stood out in first Sharks season

Why Erik Karlsson's vision, deception stood out in first Sharks season

Erik Karlsson's game was well-known to Jamie Baker when the Sharks acquired the defenseman last September. 

The Swede joined San Jose as a two-time Norris Trophy winner, with a reputation as one of the NHL's best blueliners. Baker knew of Karlsson's strengths, but two managed to surprise the Sharks broadcaster and NBC Sports California analyst as he had more chances to watch Karlsson up close rather than just twice a year. 

"Watching him every day, it was his vision," Baker said in a phone interview earlier this week. "And I knew he had great vision, but watching on television or only seeing him twice a year live doesn't give you the full spectrum of what he sees out there, and also how he's so deceptive.

"... He's got the puck and there's three options, and everybody's thinking it's going to be option one or two, and he allows you to go to option three, which could be somebody where you're like, 'how did he even see that guy, and then how did he even make the pass?'"

The Sharks bet big on those strengths Monday, signing Karlsson to an eight-year extension that made him the NHL's highest-paid defenseman and the owner of the richest contract in franchise history. Groin injuries limited Karlsson to 53 regular-season games last year, and hampered the 29-year-old during San Jose's run to the Western Conference final. In large part because of the attributes Baker mentioned, Karlsson tied with fellow defenseman Brent Burns as the Sharks' second-leading scorer during the Stanley Cup playoffs with 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) despite playing hurt. 

The combination of Karlsson's vision and deception also set up San Jose's most memorable moment of the postseason. Karlsson assisted on Barclay Goodrow's Game 7 overtime-winning goal in San Jose's first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, bringing the puck into the offensive zone before hitting Goodrow in stride. 

Baker said there are "not many defensemen in the league who would make that play."

"When he entered the offensive zone just before he passed it, he shifted over to his right just a little bit and then he kind of made a straight up-ice pass to Barclay," Baker explained. "He would not have been able to make a pass that was slightly on an angle, even if it was 30 degrees because the [Vegas] defenseman would have poke-checked it. So, the only way that he could get that puck on Barclay's stick is if he shifted over, which he did at the exact moment. [Then he] makes the pass, and now you've got the D flat-footed who can't -- he's not taking away the passing lane, and ultimately Barclay had already got enough speed.

"That's the intangible right there. It's an innate ability that he has, of timing. It's what all the greats have."

Baker added that Joe Thornton shares a similar sense of timing, noting that the veteran center can "peek" and find open teammates seconds before the play develops. The Sharks didn't see it from Karlsson for the entirety of the regular season, after he started slowly and missed 27 games down the stretch. Still, he tied for ninth among defensemen in assists (42) in the regular season and tied for fourth among all skaters in the postseason (14). 

Karlsson told reporters Monday that he will be ready for the start of the 2019-20 season after undergoing offseason groin surgery. With a clean bill of health and a contract year no longer looming, it's reasonable to think Karlsson can start strong in his second season in teal.

[RELATED: Burns finishes second in Norris Trophy voting behind Giordano]

But Baker said how Karlsson starts next year won't depend on him alone. Assistant coach Bob Boughner will return to the Sharks' bench and worked with the team's blue line during his first stint in San Jose. Managing the ice time of Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be a new challenge for the Sharks assistant, but Baker said he thinks Karlsson "is going to absolutely love" working with Boughner.

"I think it just fits seamlessly because [Boughner has] known [Sharks coach] Pete DeBoer for so long," Baker said. "He's already been here in San Jose, so he knows a lot of the players. He knows the D. He's got a great balance of understanding the technical part, the tactical part of the game, but more importantly the human nature part of the game. ... What makes each guy tick. You can show him video all day long, but sometimes it may not be about the video, it's sitting down and talking to a guy about something."

What Sharks still can accomplish as unfortunate season comes to close

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What Sharks still can accomplish as unfortunate season comes to close

The Sharks have just 18 games left in a season where the Stanley Cup playoffs still are mathematically possible -- but not realistic.
 
It’s been an uncharacteristic journey by franchise standards, one that now demands a pressing question: What can the Sharks accomplish during the rest of the season?

Healthy finish for Couture

In his second game back from injury, Logan Couture netted the game-winning goal Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. He did this despite not having officially practiced with the Sharks since Jan. 7th when he broke a bone in his foot. The captain's quick return should not diminish the fact that his season had to be completely paused and re-started from scratch.

With Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson shelved for the rest of the season, it remains important for Couture to finish the current schedule healthy and get his timing back without any limitations entering the summer and next season.

Get Jones' groove back

We could be witnessing the start of a strong finish for Martin Jones, who only has allowed seven goals in his last four starts. Two of those still resulted in losses, but that shouldn't discount his encouraging play.

This is not to suggest his struggles this season will be entirely erased, but sustained success through March would be a positive for Jones and the Sharks.

Jones and Aaron Dell are expected to continue alternating starts for the rest of the way, which would give Jones ample opportunity to continue distancing himself from the glooms of October and December. Before the current stretch, Jones only started three of the Sharks’ first 16 games in 2020.

Can young players emerge?

A theme entering this season was the expectation that the next wave of young players would make their mark at the NHL level.

Outside of Mario Ferraro -- and Dylan Gambrell to a degree -- it didn’t really pan out that way. The Sharks' desire to construct a turnaround by January only exacerbated the situation.

But now that the trade deadline has passed, even more nightly spots in the lineup have opened up. You can expect to see players like Alexander True, Jacob Middleton, and Noah Gregor get the full benefit of regular opportunity from here on out.

At the worst, it’s a great experience that they’re ready for. But the best-case scenario would be to have some built-in optimism and confidence surrounding one or some of the young commodities entering next season.

Avoid struggle stretches

I'm stating the obvious, but sustained losing streaks near the end of any season don’t usually bring any positive vibes or moral victories. This hockey season has been a complete struggle in San Jose, but avoiding a salty ending only can benefit the group that will carry over into next season. Losses are unavoidable, but staying away from long skids will be critical.

[RELATED: Why Couture has 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun' as his song]

Spoiler

While there aren’t going to be extra hockey games in San Jose this spring, it almost is guaranteed there will be a few occasions in the final weeks where the Sharks can help derail an opponent’s postseason plans.

Nothing truly can replicate Stanley Cup playoff games, but putting this group through some simulated high-stakes situations is the next best thing.

Logan Couture reflects on difficult first season as Sharks' captain

Logan Couture reflects on difficult first season as Sharks' captain

SAN JOSE -- Logan Couture could sense the Sharks needed a boost. Whether he could provide one was another matter. The team’s captain hadn’t played or practiced in seven weeks while rehabilitating a fractured ankle that might’ve still been unfit for duty during a dark time.

Couture knew that, even after a fired head coach and several serious injuries to star players, Tuesday was another low. General manager Doug Wilson traded Patrick Marleau, Brenden Dillion and Barclay Goodrow leading up to Monday’s trade deadline. Joe Thornton expressed interest in being moved and initial disappointment staying put.

Oh, and the Sharks had lost four straight on an extended road trip set to end that night in Philadelphia. Couture wasn’t sure if he was ready heading into game day and could’ve been forgiven for extending his absence to increase odds of returning in fine form. After all, the man hadn’t even practiced yet. He suited up and played the Flyers anyway.

Coming back in times of need is nothing new. Let’s not forget Couture’s the guy who played with two facial fractures and wiring to keep his teeth in place. That was the 2016-17 playoffs.

He still came rushing back, even with this season already dead and buried.

“It was an emotional 24 hours seeing a lot of friends leave the team,” Couture told NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday morning. “Honestly, it really was difficult. We understood the circumstances, [that the Sharks would be sellers at the deadline], but we were still a fragile group that day after losing guys. I figured I should go out be with the team.

"I wish I could’ve been better, but I did the best I could.”

Couture’s form wasn’t great in a loss to the Flyers, but his presence gave the Sharks a lift.

“It was an important time for him to get back into the lineup for a couple reasons,” Sharks interim head coach Bob Boughner said. “First of all, it was good for him to get that first game over with. Also, with the situation that surrounded us on the road trip with the rumors and the trade deadline.

"After losing some good people it was important to see our leader come back into the lineup.”

Couture’s initial return brought positivity to a downtrodden group. His next appearance did even more. His overtime goal beat the New Jersey Devils 3-2 Thursday night and kickstarted a prolonged homestand where the Sharks hope to rebound despite losing so much talent to injury or trades.

“He played a ton of minutes, top-line minutes, on the penalty kill and power play,” Boughner said after a big win. “He did faceoffs when we need him and then hit the game-winner. That’s what those kinds of guys do. Logan leads by example.”

That’s his focus now that the Sharks seem set on playing young, fresh faces now seeing significant ice time as the organization plans for the future.

That doesn’t happen much in these parts. The team’s first-round pick way back in 2007 has missed the playoffs just once in 10 previous seasons. The second time’s coming this spring, in Couture’s first year as captain following an injury-impacted, subpar campaign by his own lofty standards.

Couture has taken that inevitability hard, looking inward first while trying to figure out what went wrong with the team and how to fix it.

“It has been difficult, and I’ve had a lot of learning experiences,” Couture said. “I think I could do several things better. I just don’t think I’ve done enough this year. I look at myself first and wish things were different.”

[RELATED: Why Couture has 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun' as goal song]

This major ankle injury and the surgery to repair it was the hardest to handle. It wasn’t rehab or the pain involved that bothered him. Couture hated watching his team struggle without being able to help or lead from the ice as he’s accustomed.

“It has been a tough year from a team standpoint and from a personal standpoint,” Couture said. “It has been difficult with me being injured and not traveling the last couple months until this last road trip. I have been away from these guys and that’s never fun. When you’re away from the team you almost don’t feel like you’re a part of the group.

"I think a lot of the leaders around here did a great job and carried a message to the young guys to work hard and show they deserve to be here.”

Couture’s primary focus is helping get guys in the locker room ready for the next game. He is, however, keeping an eye on the big picture. That makes sense considering he’s going to be around a while, working under a $64 million contract with a modified no-trade clause that runs through the 2026-27 season.

He’s a respected locker room leader who runs a leadership-by-committee outfit to lean on experience from an established veteran core. Those that remain from that group and are healthy have leaned on each other during a trying period they hope will be remembered as a speed bump on a run of sustained success.

“It has really been tough. There’s no softer way to put it,” Couture said. “This experience has been very, very difficult. Experiencing adversity like this, it’s all about how to react to it.

“… Our goal right now is pretty simple. We want to play as hard as we possibly can during the games we have left. We’re not going to make the playoffs, but we can finish the year strong as a team and as individuals. That’s what you want. That’s what we need. You don’t want to head into the summer regretting how you finished. You want to give everything you can.

"It will be weird not playing in April, but hopefully we learn and get better after everything we’ve been through.”