Erik Karlsson is a superstar defenseman in the NHL and generally a stand-up guy. Which is why it was so puzzling that he responded to a question about returning to Ottawa the way he did after the San Jose Sharks lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night. Then again, his response, or lack of it, provides a pretty clear indication that his return to Canada’s capital for a game Saturday afternoon is weighing heavily on his mind.
First, the backstory. After the Sharks’ 5-3 loss in Toronto, several members of the media put in a request to the Sharks’ media relations staff to speak with Erik Karlsson, a player who originally was not being made available by the Sharks for post-game interviews. That is standard procedure.
The Sharks brought out four players to be interviewed and those of us who requested Karlsson were told he was receiving treatment and would be coming out to speak after that. As the media began to filter out of the room, there were four of us left. At no time were we told that broaching the subject of Karlsson’s return would be off-limits. Karlsson was asked one question about his return to Ottawa and promptly left the scrum. The Sharks’ media relations people had no idea that he was going to respond to the question that way.
For all of those who are weighing in on social media about it, let’s get a couple of things straight. First, it was a completely fair question, whether it came on the heels of a tough loss or not. Karlsson had to know it was going to come up and he had the opportunity to (a) either tell his handlers the question would be off-limits, or (b) simply decline to answer it. Many have opined that it would have been more appropriate to ask him about the recently completed game instead. With all due respect, that was not the story. Ottawa was his home for the first 11 years of his career, and it was a place he never wanted to leave. He did so amidst a tsunami of controversy. His feelings on returning there for the first time is the story.
So your trusty correspondent is going to chalk this up to the possibility that this is weighing heavily on the defenseman. In case you haven’t noticed, things have not exactly gone according to plan, for either Karlsson or the Sharks, since he was dealt to San Jose in the off-season. With the most dynamic defenseman of this era in the lineup, the Sharks were supposed to vault themselves onto the short list of Stanley Cup contenders. Instead, they’ve been mucking around with the rest of the Pacific Division, looking very good on some nights and very bad on others.
The same has gone for Karlsson, who continues to be dogged by questions about his health, his level of play and his pending future with the Sharks. All of this has also played out against a backdrop which has seen the Senators – no strangers to controversy themselves – hand Karlsson’s minutes to 21-year-old Thomas Chabot, who has responded by emerging as the best young defenseman in the league. Chabot is playing six more minutes per game than he did last season and has responded by becoming the leading scorer among defensemen in the NHL. Karlsson’s offensive numbers are underwhelming and, as a group, the Sharks have not been good defensively. “We’re giving up too many easy goals,” Sharks’ center Logan Couture said after the Toronto defeat. “My personal opinion, we’re not close (to being a Cup contender) at the moment. We’ve got to figure it out soon.”
After Karlsson left, the Sharks did say he would be addressing his return in a news conference in Ottawa, likely Friday. A lot has happened to Erik Karlsson in the past year, both personally and professionally. All the on- and off-ice turmoil has undoubtedly taken its toll and having a surgically reconstructed ankle has not helped the process. Karlsson will return to a hero’s welcome on Saturday afternoon, there is no doubt about that. He is, with all due respect to his pal Daniel Alfredsson, the greatest player the modern-day Senators have ever had. There will be tributes and it will be emotional and it will probably be good for Karlsson to put this one in his rear-view mirror.
Then perhaps he and the Sharks will be able to set about to taking care of business.