How far can Sharks go with Erik Karlsson?
At some point, it will feel natural for hockey fans to see Erik Karlsson wearing San Jose Sharks teal. Such a vision may never stop feeling unsettling for their unfortunate opponents.
In November 2005, the Sharks sent shockwaves through the NHL by landing Joe Thornton, who went on to win the Hart Trophy, propel San Jose to years of being Stanley Cup favorites, and make Jonathan Cheechoo rich. Could the Sharks reap similar rewards by acquiring Karlsson in a blockbuster trade? Might things work out even better - with San Jose landing that elusive championship - or far worse, with the blockbuster flopping “Waterworld"-style?
No doubt, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer must be giddy to make the most of a foreboding defense that now includes Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Then again, he’ll look pretty foolish if he can’t cook with such premium ingredients.
Let’s consider the biggest factors working for and against the Sharks as PHT previews the 2018-19 season.
[Predictions, including first coach fired and overrated teams]
The Sharks were already a playoff team
In 2015-16, the Sharks fell two wins shy of finally winning that Stanley Cup. They’ve clinched playoff berths three seasons in a row, only missed once since 2003-04, and only missed twice since 1997-98.
(Easy to forget how much success this team has enjoyed, huh?)
Even with Thornton on the mend from a knee injury that ultimately required surgery, the 2017-18 Sharks managed to sweep the Kings before falling to Vegas during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fittingly, a splashy trade (landing Evander Kane) propelled San Jose to a higher level.
The Pacific Division arms race may have complicated things at times, but don’t forget that the Sharks have been favorites to win the division even before they bamboozled Ottawa to grab Karlsson.
Karlsson, 28, is a two-time Norris Trophy-winner, and you could make a sound argument that he’s been the best defenseman in the world for more than just two seasons.
The stupendous Swede’s scoring should speak for itself, but as a reminder, he finished sixth in scoring among defensemen (62 points, only six behind leader John Carlson) despite missing 11 games and possibly being banged-up physically. Oh yeah, he managed that deluxe season - poor by his terms, miraculous by most others’ - with the drama-rich, talent-poor Ottawa Senators.
Of course, it’s not just about the scoring with Karlsson.
Even a “down” season places Karlsson among the truly elite. Simply put, Karlsson tilts the ice in his team’s favor when he’s on duty, and he’s been the sort of big-minutes defenseman who can carry a team to, say, overtime of Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.
Other All-Star defensemen almost always pale in comparison to Karlsson when it comes to crucial puck possession and transition skills. (Sorry for linking this, Brent Burns.)
[How will Vegas follow its incredible first season?]
Some quibbles with Karlsson, and the Sharks
Granted, there are some caveats when it comes to Karlsson.
The biggest concern, particularly if the Sharks aim for a contract extension, comes down to injury risks.
As you may remember, hockey fans got their first real introduction to Eugene Melnyk’s eccentricities when the Senators owner wanted a crime-scene investigation regarding Matt Cooke tearing Karlsson’s Achilles tendon back in 2013.
Karlsson’s incredible play during the Senators’ deep playoff run became downright jaw-dropping when you consider that he was gutting it out through hairline fractures in his foot. Plenty wondered if Karlsson was hindered by that issue through last season, and who’s fully certain that he’s even at full speed now?
Overall, Karlsson hasn’t always enjoyed the greatest injury luck.
Considering all of the mileage he’s put on his body, you could probably get away with calling Karlsson “an old 28.” He’s easily worth the risk of lingering issues, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
It’s remarkable that the Sharks’ defense was already in the NHL’s upper crust before adding Karlsson.
Burns is the only defenseman who’s really matched or exceeded Karlsson’s offensive production, so the Sharks boast the most offensively explosive duo of defensemen in recent memory.
After years of lugging around some limited (or downright abysmal) defensive partners in Ottawa, Karlsson figures to play alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, easily one of the most proficient “shutdown” blueliners in the NHL.
DeBoer could easily mix and match in other ways, as while Vlasic - Karlsson makes sense on paper, he might conclude that Vlasic and Burns could be the better match. After all, the Sharks have other nice defensive options, with Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon standing out.
It’s to the point where the Sharks might need to part ways with a fairly productive depth defensive scorer in Tim Heed, as Elliotte Friedman discussed in the Sept. 27 edition of his “31 Thoughts” podcast.
Finding the right fit
All of that said, DeBoer must figure out a way to align all of these pieces in the right way, and the power play stands as the most fascinating challenge.
According to Left Wing Lock, the Sharks’ current top power play unit features Karlsson, Burns, Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture. It’s easy to picture that set of five players enjoying immense success considering the mixture of handedness (three right, two left shots), hockey IQ, and sheer talent.
This remains a situation to watch, however.
After all, Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed defensemen who are used to calling the shots - and in Burns’ case, taking a ton of shots - while quarterbacking a power play. Talent tends to trump these concerns, but it’s also worth noting that analytics argue that you tend to get more out of an alignment of four forwards and one defenseman than you would from the more traditional three-forward, two-defensemen setup.
There’s also some evidence that, for all of his strengths, Karlsson hasn’t always been dynamite on the power play.
By going with Karlsson and Burns on the top unit, Evander Kane and others settle for secondary opportunities.
As much as anything else, this task may come down to managing egos.
[Karlsson trade part of a dream summer for hockey fans]
Again, there are counterpoints for why this would work, even beyond the obvious notion that San Jose is just loaded with talent. Burns was drafted into the NHL as a forward, so he likely would know what he’s doing if deployed in more of that way on the PP.
It’s also promising at A) DeBoer seems generally to be a bright coach and B) he’s already shown a knack for integrating star players. Burns’ ice time skyrocketed around the time DeBoer took over in San Jose, and the coach deserves a decent chunk of the credit for the Wookie-like defenseman getting the green light to shoot the puck with reckless abandon.
(DeBoer also frequently pushed all the right buttons with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey.)
Old and new
In the grand scheme of things, Karlsson possibly being “an old 28" isn’t a huge worry in 2018-19.
Things could go sideways if Father Time comes knocking with other players, though. Beard or no beard, Thornton is 39 and comes off of knee surgery for the second consecutive year (both knees). Pavelski is somehow 34, and Burns isn’t far behind at 33. Both Vlasic and Braun are 31. Even Couture is 29, nearing the big 3-0, when the aging curve can sometimes be cruelly steep.
Wear and tear can really rear their ugly heads for older players, especially ones who’ve regularly made the playoffs and represented their teams in international competition.
[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]
On the other hand, the Sharks have some decent younger forwards who could conceivably stem some of the tide. Timo Meier generates hype as an up-and-comer, and supplied some steak with that sizzle already considering his 21 goals in limited ice time last season. Kevin Labanc isn’t a superstar in the making, but he’s another guy who can step up if there’s serious decay and/or injuries.
A legit contender
This post breaks down many of the fork-in-the-road concerns for the Sharks, but what’s the general outlook?
Well, Karlsson gives the Sharks the most offensively dynamic defense in the NHL - on paper - and you could make a legitimate argument for San Jose having the flat-out best defense overall. NHL teams rarely get two Norris winners on their rosters, particularly in the salary cap era. (The Ducks landing Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger comes to mind, and even then, Karlsson makes San Jose’s combination younger.)
Combine an elite defense with a robust offense and a reliable goalie in Martin Jones, and the Sharks don’t really have many - if any - glaring holes.
As we saw with the Golden Knights team that dispatched the Sharks in 2017-18, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the NHL. Adding a superstar to an established winner isn’t the slam-dunk for the Sharks as it is for, say, the Golden State Warriors.
We can only speculate about how well Karlsson will mix with San Jose’s impressive group, but with the information at hand, it sure seems like a tide-turner for the Sharks. It might just be enough for them to finally win it all.