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.
SHARKS WIN!!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/rtljyjqrSB— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) April 24, 2019
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.
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."