It’s a matter of fact that Erik Karlsson is held to a higher standard than other NHL defencemen. His work in his own zone is more heavily scrutinized than anyone else, and once a year people seem to talk themselves out of giving him the Norris Trophy.
Criticism of Karlsson is often unfair as it expects him to be something he’s not and fails to appreciate the unique talent that he is. In recent weeks though, Karlsson is finally earning the flak he always seems to attract. Not with his entirely-reasonable comments about his upcoming free agency, but instead with a cold streak on the ice.
Right now, the gifted Swede is in the midst of the worst slump of his career. Now, when it comes to defencemen we rarely use the term “slump,” but when you’ve posted more than 70 points in four of your last six seasons the goalposts move a little bit. There’s no escaping that producing offensively is a huge part of Karlsson’s role, and when he’s absent from the scoresheet he’s not at his best.
Over the last nine games the 27-year-old hasn’t registered a point. Last season he never went more than four games without a point. The previous year that number was three.
The only comparable pointless streak Karlsson’s had in his illustrious career came back in January 2010 when he spent eight games off the scoresheet. That was a very different situation as he was a 19-year-old rookie on the way to a 26-point season, not the Senators’ franchise player. He was also carrying a far lighter load and worked 154:54 minutes during that span compared to the 227:50 he’s logged over his last nine.
With any extreme outlier like this, luck is playing a role. Karlsson has had 24 shots on goal during his slump without a tally to his name. That’s not going to happen too often. On the defensive side he’s also been on the ice for four empty-net goals, which makes the plus/minus a little exaggerated. From a possession perspective he’s +13 on five-on-five shot attempts, so he’s certainly not getting bombed out there.
Karlsson doesn’t deserve to be exonerated based on poor fortune alone, though. In recent weeks he’s made a few ugly mistakes that have wound up in the Senators net.
His game against the Islanders was particularly poor as he got clobbered in a one-on-one battle in front of the net with Anders Lee that resulted in a New York goal:
Karlsson starts the play between Lee and the net, but gets completely outmuscled and ends up way out of the play crumpling awkwardly and perhaps trying to draw a penalty.
Later in that game he breaks his lumber, giving the Islanders a breakaway goal.
That’s more bad luck than bad play, but it’s certainly not a great look.
During his current slump, Karlsson has also made some mistakes you never like to see from a defenceman — first pair or third. In a loss to the lowly Arizona Coyotes, the Senators captain let Anthony Duclair slip behind him to go in alone for the tying goal.
At the end of the play Karlsson seems to shift into low gear and simply drift to the net. Whether he’s made the calculation that he can’t affect the play or — in a more generous interpretation — figures there’s a chance for some kind of play off the rebound, pulling up like that never looks like the best play.
Against Washington, Karlsson had one of his most damning breakdowns in coverage. Watch how he floats high in the slot here without cutting off the passing lane or picking up the backside forward who fires the puck past Craig Anderson.
A defenceman who plays as many minutes as Karlsson is going to make some mistakes, and his offensive genius does have some accompanying risks. Right now, his downside is just more visible because his upside is absent. It’s always there and it’s always a price worth paying.
There are a lot of blueliners who don’t have to produce offensively to be valuable, but Karlsson does. He needs to be the engine that drives the Senators attack — especially seeing as they don’t have anyone else capable of doing that.
The Senators are 1-7-1 over their last nine games. They’ve been outscored 33-15. Their power play is humming along at 9.4 percent. Is all of that Karlsson’s fault? Of course not. Is all of that happening if he’s at his best? Absolutely not.
Karlsson is as relied on by his team as much as anyone in hockey. As he goes, so go the Senators. We saw how magical that can be during last year’s playoffs. Now we’re seeing the worst case scenario for that reliance.
In all likelihood, Karlsson will turn the corner any day now. The shots will start going in and the slick passes will find their way to waiting sticks in the most dangerous areas of the ice. He’ll put the Seantors back on his back and carry them farther than they deserve to go. Until that happens, though, it’s going to be grim for the Senators.