Erik Drawback: Why Karlsson may be hurting the Sharks more than helping them

The all-world defenseman's talent is unquestionable, but the strength of his fit in San Jose might be less definite

Gabriel John Ostler
March 07, 2019 - 9:52 am

Erik Karlsson is the best player on the San Jose Sharks.

Brent Burns is a Norris Trophy winner and singular presence as a defenseman, occupying rarified air that only the likes of Drew Doughty and Mark Giordano sniff on a regular basis.

Joe Pavelski is the heart and soul of the boys in teal, wearing the “C” as a former seventh-round pick who scratched his way to the top with a combination of relentless work and unparalleled hand-eye coordination.

Joe Thornton just passed Gordie Howe on the all-time NHL assists list and is certain to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame the moment he hangs up his skates.

But if you handed anyone San Jose’s roster and asked who the absolute best was out of all the noteworthy names, E. Karlsson (sorry, Melker) would jump to the top of the list each and every time.

A multi-time Norris winner who’s credited with near-singlehandedly dragging a listless Ottawa franchise to the Eastern Conference Finals. A creative savant with blinding offensive vision who can also lock down the sweetest skaters in his defensive zone. An absolute offseason heist for the Sharks who must be priority No. 1 for re-signing to a long-term deal come the conclusion of this campaign.

His sheer talent is undeniable. But it’s becoming more and more plausible as the Sharks’ Stanley Cup aspirations swim further into focus that Karlsson may not be doing all that much for San Jose, and could in fact be actively impeding their progress as a franchise.

Pairing Problems

One of the immediate issues noted after the acquisition of Karlsson was that he is a clear top-line defensive talent being brought to a team with a man firmly ensconced in that role — the aforementioned Brent Burns. A Burns - Karlsson pairing may seem sexy, but with both players having such a nose for goal, putting them on the ice together would function as defensive suicide.

Therefore, Burns has held on to his position, first being linked with Joakim Ryan before he flamed out and was replaced by the much steadier Radim Simek.

That left Karlsson to join forces with the über-consistent Marc-Edouard Vlasic. This seems like a natural partnership; Vlasic is a defensive stalwart who, in theory, can provide excellent cover for Karlsson’s offensive zone excursions.

Unfortunately, the Sharks play games in San Jose, not in theory. The Vlasic – Karlsson tandem has been like oil and water mixed with white after labor day. They just don’t go together. The two have been dreadful when sharing shifts and have forced Pete DeBoer to get far more creative than he should with three of the top fifteen defensemen in the league.

Brainiac Attack

Having a player with preternatural game-diagnosing abilities sounds like what Chris Partlow would call “one of them good problems.”

Watch a period of any Sharks game and you’ll see that the issue is not all that fantastic.

Sometimes it works out great. Look at Erik feeding Timo Meier for an effective tap-in on the PP against Vancouver.

That one-touch passing can’t be brought about by perfect play design. It’s the kind of vision that is only bestowed upon a hockey god.

And yet, examine the other 90 percent of San Jose’s broadcasts and you’ll see Karlsson pucks being tossed to empty corners, followed by Randy Hahn’s explanation that the Swede’s teammates just aren’t ready for such incisive dishes. It takes time, you know, for players to acclimate to such visionary gameplay.

Well, it’s been 66 games and San Jose looks no nearer to reading Karlsson’s roadmap. While the sentence seems ridiculous to read removed from context, it’s entirely possible that Karlsson’s creative skill is actually hindering the rest of the team.

With him out of the lineup this year, they’re 10-3-1. This includes a dominating win over the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning. At the time, we figured it was a bit of a fluke. As the season progresses, it’s become entirely possible that his absence more than his presence allows the Sharks’ strengths to shine through.

Injury Issues

One of the few things holding Karlsson back from being considered the clear-cut top dawg in the NHL defenseman ranks (besides Victor Hedman being manufactured in a Swedish lab out of a more reasonable Zdeno Chara mold with better skating and instincts) is his recent spate of injuries, which come off as particularly troubling for a 28-year-old.

His ankle is essentially nonexistent, and that’s been the least of his problems this year.

A nagging groin affliction is a worrying proposition for a fairly young man in a sport that demands much of your legs night in and night out. Watch him aggravate a clear injury, then getting bossed by Brad Marchand on Boston’s fourth goal, with an alarming inability to backskate and perform essential defensive functions:

The Sharks are in a sound playoff position and can afford to give Karlsson extra rest, which is their current implemented policy, so the layoff shouldn’t effect too much for this season. But when considering a long-term extension that would pay Karlsson over $10m per annum, it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s wise to tie up so much cash in a player who can’t be depended upon to suit up for 60+ games each go-round.

Moving Forward

Denying Erik Karlsson’s talent would be foolish. He’s simply on another plane from most people with a set of blades in the NHL.

At this point, though, it’s understandable to wonder if Karlsson really helps the Sharks all that much and if his re-signing is mandatory to the franchise’s continued success.

He’s seemed to have trouble forming chemistry with his teammates, especially in the defensive pairing arena. And he’s grappled multiple times in the young campaign with serious-looking ailments that give one pause when considering his long-term viability as a franchise cornerstone.

Erik Karlsson is a star. But he might not be the right incandescent miracle for the San Jose Sharks.

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