Sharks

Why Sharks shouldn't write off Karlsson after subpar start

Sharks

The Sharks are 2-1-1 in their last four games without defenseman Erik Karlsson, but don't think for one moment that's because they've been without Karlsson.

Yes, Karlsson, who's week-to-week with a groin injury, looked like a shell of his two-time Norris Trophy-winning self at both ends of the ice in the first 13 games of the season, scoring just four points (all assists). Coach Bob Boughner said it was possible Karlsson could return Saturday, but San Jose's schedule is unclear after Thursday's game was postponed due to Tomas Hertl entering the NHL's COVID-19 protocol.

And yes, the haul the Sharks gave up to acquire Karlsson included, among other pieces, the No. 3 overall pick in the most recent NHL draft. That pick, forward Tim Stutzle, already has 10 points in 18 games.

And, sure, beloved former captain Joe Pavelski joined the Dallas Stars the same summer Karlsson signed the richest contract in Sharks history. Pavelski's playoff hot streak helped the Stars reach the Stanley Cup Final last season, and it has continued into 2021.

The media criticism of, and fan-base frustration with, Karlsson is completely understandable, but that doesn't mean the Sharks are the latest data point for Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory, nor is it definitive proof that Karlsson is San Jose's biggest problem amid what's shaping up to be another subpar season.

As the team's highest-paid player, whose tenure in teal has featured seemingly as many stops as starts, Karlsson makes an all-too-convenient scapegoat for what ails the Sharks. But the 30-year-old isn't at the root of San Jose's problems, nor is he the biggest one on a team trying to climb out of the basement of the Western Division.

 

Many narratives asserting as much don't withstand scrutiny.

For starters, the Sharks made their bed, which lacked room for both Pavelski and Karlsson, long before the Swedish defenseman put pen to paper. San Jose re-signed defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, goaltender Martin Jones and forwards Evander Kane and Logan Couture to contracts of (at least) five years worth (at least) a $5.75 million cap hit ahead of unrestricted free agency.

If you believe Karlsson's $11.5 million cap hit is why Pavelski left, what about Jones and Vlasic's combined $12.75 million cap hit, when the former has a .895 5-on-5 save percentage over the last three seasons, and the latter is no longer an elite shutdown defenseman? The totality of the Sharks' long-term commitments, not Karlsson's alone, is why San Jose couldn't retain Pavelski -- nor any depth -- after making the 2019 Western Conference final.

Even if you still consider the Sharks' 2019 offseason a Karlsson-Pavelski referendum, the fundamentals were sound. Karlsson is six years younger than the former captain, he plays a premium position and he was a captain himself on Ottawa. You can look back on Karlsson's foot injury in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs as a turning point in what was a healthy career, but it's not like Sharks general manager Doug Wilson could've foreseen that a once-in-a-century pandemic would give Pavelski a second wind during his first two seasons in Dallas. Pavelski's 2019-20 was his worst regular season since his rookie year.

Karlsson's obvious struggles this season cloud the fact he delivered after the trade. The Sharks don't make the Western Conference final without him, and he scored 16 points in 19 playoff games while his groin clearly hobbled him. You can say he shouldn't have rushed back from the injury during the regular season, but you can't fault his intentions, as part of that rush coincided with him wanting to play in front of Sharks fans at NHL All-Star Weekend in San Jose. Plus, Karlsson led San Jose in points at the time he was shut down last season with a broken thumb. The Sharks' worst season in over a decade doesn't fall on his shoulders.

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That's not to overlook Karlsson's poor season so far, which looks worse in light of Stutzle and former first-round pick Josh Norris, another part of the trade, carving out roles in Ottawa. Either player could help the Sharks right now, and well beyond that.

But it's far too early to write off the rest of Karlsson's season. Being away from his wife and not-yet-2-year-old daughter for over a month in training camp couldn't have been easy, considering the Karlsson family's heartbreaking history and let alone in a pandemic.

 

The Sharks need a lot more from Karlsson when he returns, but the same can be said about plenty of veterans on a team that has won seven of its 17 games. Karlsson's subpar performance isn't more of the same in his teal tenure, either, and he isn't the root cause of San Jose's structural issues.

At worst, he's a symptom of a larger problem. At best, he can help the Sharks overcome it. Let's reserve judgment until after he returns.