Four years ago, Erik Karlsson was coming off an Eastern Conference Final appearance and was arguably the best hockey player in the world. Two years ago, he signed an eight-year extension worth $11.5 million annually. Today, in 2021, he has been plagued by injuries and has struggled to adjust while playing through the San Jose Sharks rebuilding stage. However, I’m ready to say that Karlsson is primed to rebound in the 2022-23 season, and will return to being among the NHL’s top defensemen.
Inside the Analytics
Last season was the worst of Karlsson’s career. Through 52 games played, the offensive-defenseman produced just eight goals and 22 points. Along with this, he had a -3.7 Goals Above Replacement (GAR), and -0.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the worst metrics he has ever recorded.
Despite the career-low numbers, it’s not exactly all bad news for Karlsson. For starters, last season was his first negative analytical season since his rookie season in 2009-10, where he had five goals, 26 points, and a -1.2 GAR through 60 games played.
In his three seasons prior to last year from 2017-18 to 2019-20, he had a combined 29.8 GAR, 18 goals, and 147 points through 180 games played. This is a positive note, as it shows that he was consistently putting up great numbers before his bad COVID-shortened season. The majority of his GAR rating came from his even-strength and special teams offense, as he was a top offensive-defenseman in the league. Despite this, he still had at the very least, average defensive metrics, as he combined for 4.7 even-strength defensive goals above replacement (EVD_GAR).
Once again, this shows me that the potential for greatness is still there for Karlsson, and is way more likely than not.
Looking at the Situation
Karlsson looks to be in a great situation this year as opposed to last year. For starters, he will likely slot into the second-pairing, probably next to Santeri Hatakka or Nikolai Knyzhov, meaning he will be the main puck possessor of the two. Along with this, he’ll more often see the ice with the second-line, which could very well consist of William Eklund, Tomas Hertl, and Alexander Barabanov. Because of this, he’ll have lots of offensive weapons to look to at even-strength and will lead to more production coming from his passes.
Along with the even-strength production, you can also expect Karlsson to be useful on the special teams. I project that we will see a powerplay something around the likes of Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Hertl, Eklund, and Karlsson. Once again, just like at even-strength, this will surround the Swedish defenseman with tons of players who can shoot the puck dangerously, and with result in more high-quality scoring chances.
These situations lead me to believe we are almost certain to see Karlsson’s production increase. I am anticipating at least 60 points if he manages to stay healthy, which may not seem like a lot, but for a defenseman on a team that was at the bottom of the league last season, it would be huge.
Back to Regularity
For me personally, I really don’t like to put a lot of stock into the type of year a player had individually last season. It was the weirdest campaign since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened year, as there were just 56 games rather than the regular 82, and teams were only playing against the same opponents within their division all year. This for Karlsson meant he would have to play the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues eight times during the season, which is definitely not an easy task.
While you can argue that he also got to play teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes, and you would be right, it just isn’t the same as getting to play against every team in the league. Defensemen like Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse absolutely tore up the North Division offensively, as they got to play against weak defensive and goaltending teams, as we saw with historic campaigns from Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
The last actual regular season we witnessed as hockey fans was 2018-19. In that year, Karlsson had three goals and 45 points through 53 games played, which is really good production for an offensive-defenseman, and was on pace for 70 points if he didn’t get hurt and played a full season that year. In that same year, he also tied his best GAR rating of all time, with 16.8. He also dominated the postseason, putting up two goals and 16 points through 19 games played, his best production in the playoffs since the Senators playoff run in 2016-17.
Now while it’s definitely not set in stone that Karlsson is going to bounce back. In fact, this could very well be the beginning of his downfall. However, I think he still has lots left in the tank.
As long as he can stay healthy.