Erik Karlsson, Hall of Famer: His magical start to 2022-23 reminds us why


« What year is it?! » The puzzled patient stammers, scratching his long shaggy beard.

« It’s 2022, sir. »

The man begins to thrash and panic in bed, thrashing, his muscles still atrophied from the coma.

“I slept for six years? What’s going on in the world?

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« Well, » said the doctor. « Erik Karlsson is the most dominant defender in the -« 

« Ahh, » he said calming down. « Nothing has changed. »

And… scene. A silly fantasy vignette like this is the best method I can conjure up of just how weird Erik Karlsson’s 2022-23 season has been so far. Half a decade ago, he was on the short list of the best players on the planet, when discussing with Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, after captaining the Ottawa Senators just one goal from reaching the final of the 2016-17 Stanley Cup.

Karlsson was a hockey deity, the greatest offensive defenseman of his generation. That was before Cale Makar, Adam Fox, and Roman Josi started posting video game stats, let’s not forget. Karlsson was doing things that no defender had done this millennium. He led the NHL in assists in 2015-16; no D-man had done that since Bobby Orr in 1975-76. Karlsson finished in the top 10 overall in 2011-12 and 2015-16; Orr, Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey are the only other defensemen in league history to do so twice. Karlsson, blessed with sublime skating and the ability to control a game, was on an easy path to the Hall of Fame, already armed with two Norris trophies.

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But then, in the summer of 2017, after that playoff series had taken its toll, he had major ankle surgery that involved removing half of the bone, as he explained at the time. . It cost him the first five games of the 2017-18 season, one in which the Senators imploded and began a long process of rebuilding. He has missed 11 games this season. Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks in a blockbuster before the 2018-19 season, and he missed 29 games that year due to a lower-body injury and a groin injury. The following season: 13 games missed. Broken thumb. The next season? Four games missed with a lower body injury. Last season: COVID-19, left forearm surgery and a lower-body injury engulfed 32 games.

Karlsson had become an afterthought, a ghost chewing over $11 million in cap space on some irrelevant Sharks teams. Since the trade, he had played 211 of the Sharks’ 290 games, missing 27% of them.

The thing is, he still drove the game really well when he was in the lineup. In the three seasons before this one, 11 defensemen played at least 1,000 5-on-5 minutes for the Sharks, and Karlsson was one of two with a shot attempt share above 50% when he was on the ice, which is impressive considering he was there for 24 minutes a game, more or less, and facing stiff competition. During this sample of three seasons, his most common opponents were Jonathan Marchessault, Anze Kopitar, Clayton Keller, Mikko Rantanen and so on – Karlsson was always up against his opponents’ top six forwards. Even the hobbled version of him, creeping into his thirties, managed to break even or better.

And now? The comatose guy would wake up and feel like it’s 2017 again. Karlsson shattered the game, tied for second in NHL scoring with a staggering 11 goals and 28 points in 19 games, in good health and having not missed a match. He’s on pace for a season of 47 goals and 121 points. This is Orr or Coffey level greatness.

Obviously, with the year he has, Karlsson’s trade talks will come to a head in a few months as the Sharks continue to sink in the Pacific Division. We have plenty of time to speculate on that.

But for now? Let’s speculate on Karlsson’s Hall of Fame affair. I wouldn’t say the last four seasons killed him, but they did at least silence the discussion and raise the question of whether he had been dominant enough for long enough. But now, based on what he’s accomplished this season? He will cement himself as a Hall of Famer.

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And, honestly, he already was. Karlsson was already a two-time Norris Trophy winner. Only 13 defensemen have won the Norris more than once, and all 11 of those who are eligible for induction are Hall of Famers. Duncan Keith will also join this group once eligible, likely as a first-round inductee. Karlsson was a four-time First Team All-Star. He is one of 14 defenders to earn four or more first-team appointments.

Karlsson passes the peak test in that he was the most dominant offensive defenseman in the game for the better part of a decade. This player card from Adjusted Hockey’s Paul Pidutti shows that Karlsson has a pretty straightforward Hall of Fame case.

Courtesy of Paul Pidutti

Even taking into account his lost years in San Jose, he is considered the 14e-best defender of his era, and his peak period « High Noon » puts him in second place. Frankly, I’m surprised he was only No. 2.

Courtesy of Paul Pidutti

Karlsson holds two of the top 10 and three of the top 13 single-season point totals by a defenseman this century. He is second only to Brent Burns, who spent time as a forward, in points by a defenseman this century. So if we look at what Karlsson had achieved before this season, he already deserved to be considered in the first round.

But what if he stays healthy and adds another All-Star selection and a third Norris Trophy this season? This makes him an absolute lock.

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