Forget the Conn Smythe and Norris Trophy, Erik Karlsson wants a Stanley Cup
Erik Karlsson has been an unstoppable force in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Injured and at times appearing in excruciating pain, the Senators captain led the charge through two rounds as Ottawa defied expectations on its way to the conference final. The Senators are heavy underdogs in their series starting Saturday. To earn a spot in the final, they must go through the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Roy MacGregor reports
He is chasing his third Norris Trophy in the past four years.
That he is the best NHL defenceman still skating is indisputable – the other two Norris finalists, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, are out of the playoffs – yet he might, in another life, have been challenging for the Vezina Trophy that goes to the top goaltender.
While it is true that this once one-way player has so transformed his game that he was second in the league in blocked shots this year, it is also true that he once dreamed of doing nothing but blocking shots.
Just so he could wear one of those fancy goalie masks.
Erik Karlsson was six years old when his father, Jonas, dissuaded him of that ambition. The father, himself a fine player and then a coach in little Landsbro, Sweden, let the kid put on the big pads … and then blasted a slap-shot at him. The kid started to bawl and decided immediately that he would play defence, just like his dad.
He chose a new idol in Nicklas Lidstrom, the former Detroit Red Wings defenceman who racked up seven Norris Trophies before retiring. Karlsson has two, perhaps soon three – some believe he should have won last year as well, when he lost to Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings – and, at 26, has several prime years left to chase Lidstrom.
Lidstrom also won four Stanley Cups. Karlsson is looking for his first, a quest that continues Saturday as his Ottawa Senators meet Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening game of the Eastern Conference final.
Lidstrom, a much larger man, was the master of positional play, cautious and certain. Karlsson, at least for his first several years in Ottawa, thought "stay-home" defencemen should stay home – he was going exploring. He is so quick to dart, so fast to reverse, so instant to react that his playing style might as well be described as weasel-in-a-woodshed hockey.
The Hockey News and one influential broadcaster have already tagged him as the early favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, that will go to the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs. His two goals, both game winners, his 11 assists and – some will be surprised – his defensive prowess, have been the driving forces behind the Senators' unexpected playoff success.
"It's just something for people to talk about," he says dismissively. "It doesn't really matter."
That his play has become the talk of the playoffs is hardly surprising. He has played through injury – two hairline fractures in his left foot – and, in Game 3 against the Boston Bruins, he launched a 116-foot saucer pass from the Ottawa net to the Boston blueline that landed like a feather on the blade of Mike Hoffman, who dashed in to score the game's first goal.
It is, of course, too early to be thinking about the Conn Smythe. Karlsson's Senators have to get by the defending Stanley Cup champions just to reach the final, and no player who ever failed to reach the final round has won the trophy. As well, it has gone to someone on a losing team only five times. Four of those were goalies (Roger Crozier, 1966; Glenn Hall, 1968; Ron Hextall, 1987; J.S. Giguere, 2003), and once it was a forward (Reggie Leach, 1976). It has never gone to a defenceman on a losing cause.
Still, who thought Karlsson and his Senators would get even this far?
"We got a long way to go yet," Karlsson said after the Senators dispatched the favoured New York Rangers in six games. "We didn't go this far to not want any more."
Friday morning saw him at a Senators' practice for the first time in weeks. Usually, he skips it to rest, but he was out this time to break in a new pair of skates, something he does every playoff round.
"Why?" he laughs. "I don't know."
By the time the 2008 entry draft rolled around, the Senators were well aware of the skinny Swedish defenceman. Scout Anders Forsberg had been singing his praises and four other scouts, including Pierre Dorion, then head scout, had watched him in tournaments.
"He just got better and better," says Dorion, who says at that year's under-18 tournament held in Kazan, Russia, Karlsson "elevated his game to another level."
The Senators were to draft 18th. They had Karlsson in the No. 7 slot and expected to see him go around there. When he was still available heading into the 15th pick, then-general manager Bryan Murray struck a quick deal with Nashville to trade picks, throw in a lower draft pick, and allow Ottawa to have the 15th pick.
"I have to give credit to Bryan," says Dorion, who last year inherited the general manager title from Murray. "He made the trade to go from 18 to 15. He says, 'Pierre, who you going to take?' and I said, 'The Swede' and he says, 'You want me to take a 5-foot-10-and-a-half, 157-pound defenceman? You sure you want to work for me?' I said, 'Yes, I do. It's the right choice and I want to work for you for a long time.'"
Dorion keeps a photo of that young Karlsson in his office: "He looks like a 12-year-old boy."
But no more. The boy is now slightly taller than 6-feet, and 191 pounds. He sports a Salvador Dali mustache – TV caught him twirling its edges in the dying moments of Game 6 against the Rangers – and confidently wears the captain's "C" that had been worn by his mentor, Daniel Alfredsson.
When Karlsson first arrived in Ottawa, he lived with Alfredsson and his wife Bibi, happily babysitting their young boys when he wasn't playing hockey.
Alfredsson, now a senior adviser to the team, left in 2013 to play a season with the Detroit Red Wings and, briefly, Jason Spezza took over the captaincy. When Spezza left for the Dallas Stars, the "C" was given to Karlsson despite some concern that perhaps he wasn't quite ready.
"They know my flaws," Karlsson told The Globe and Mail early in his career. "They know I'm a high-risk player and sometimes I screw up."
There were always pokes at his riverboat gambler style of play. Former coach Paul MacLean surely had the best line when he answered a question about Karlsson's ability to play 30 minutes or more a game: "As long as he didn't play 16 minutes for us and 14 minutes for them."
"I never took that personally," Karlsson told Michael Farber, of Sports Illustrated, this spring. "'Mac' just wanted to hold his best player accountable and push me to be better. That was for the team as much as me."
Some worried about his maturity. He welcomed 2014 with a tweet telling fans that "2013 sucks. Worst year ever. Let's go 2014. Happy New Years everybody."
He had cause to feel that way. A personal relationship had broken down. His mentor, Alfredsson, had left unhappily. And nearly a year before, he had suffered a vicious injury when Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins slammed his skate down on Karlsson's heel, lacerating the Achilles tendon. It took a long time to heal, and after that, a long time for him to get his stride back. It left permanent damage.
"There's not much I can do about it," he says. "I'm not going to be able to reverse it or anything like that. You just have to move forward. I've moved away from that a long time ago."
"You always worry early on," says Dorion of the injury. "It took him a little while." But today, says Dorion, Karlsson stands as the "most dynamic player in the league.
"I don't think people realize the impact he's had on us. I think he's taken it upon himself. I think he was disappointed that he didn't win the Norris last year. He wanted to prove to people."
Dorion brought in a new coach, Guy Boucher, last summer and early predictions were that Karlsson would be at loggerheads with Boucher, who claims neutral-zone-trap expert Jacques Lemaire as a mentor, and comes across in interviews as a control freak's control freak.
The late Roger Neilson, who was once an assistant coach in Ottawa and previously had to deal with such stars as the New York Rangers' Mark Messier and St. Louis Blues' Brett Hull, left behind a special warning for those who would deal with elite players.
"Your skilled superstars can take a lot of time, and they often take special treatment," Neilson said. "But the point is, if you don't get along with them, it is going to cost you your job."
Boucher is smart enough to understand that reality. While he might wish to control other players as if they were a table-top game, he lets Karlsson decide for himself what to do and what not to do. Karlsson says he changed his game to better suit Boucher's system.
"I think everybody has to adjust, especially over the course of the year," says Karlsson. "I do think that this team has really bought into the system that he's brought. In his defence, if you want to say it like that, it's been working for us. That's why we are in the position that we are in. We realize that this is the way that we have to play with the team that we have, to be successful. Not only me, but everybody has done what's expected of them.
"Everybody has really bought into it, and it's paid off."
Boucher was instrumental in getting Karlsson to understand that he had to be better in his own end, and had to sacrifice in order to inspire teammates. As Boucher so often says, you cannot play in the NHL if you don't block shots.
"That's one of the things everybody can do," says Karlsson. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to hurt … [but] we expect it of each other."
"Guy has empowered him," says Dorion.
Karlsson's personal life has also dramatically improved from that New Year's tweet of years back. He's engaged. He's become the leader of the dressing room. He maintains a close relationship with Alfredsson, even if babysitting is no longer part of the picture.
"Daniel has been tremendous in his growth as a leader," says Dorion. After Karlsson picked up his second Norris, Dorion says Alfredsson told him, "You've won two – how many more do you think you can win?"
It will be interesting to see if money eventually becomes an issue for Karlsson as it did for Alfredsson. Karlsson is entering the final two years of a seven-year $45.5-million deal. With an annual cap hit of $6.5-million, he makes less than two Senators, Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf, and ranks 11th in pay among NHL defencemen, well behind Nashville's P.K. Subban ($9-million), Montreal's Shea Weber ($7.857-million) and Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien ($7.6-million). Ottawa is not a rich team and works below the salary cap. The team will have to think contract extension soon, and Karlsson will command many years at many millions.
Certainly, at the moment, the Ottawa Senators could not possibly think higher of their captain.
"They always say God rested on the seventh day," Dorion told a press conference following the series defeat of the Bruins. "I think on the eighth day, He created Erik Karlsson."