Upon his arrival in San Jose, the question wasn’t so much if Erik Karlsson would succeed, but to what extent. A 60-plus point player in all but one of his past seven seasons, Karlsson’s offensive acumen has never been doubted, his ability to put points on the board unquestioned and Karlsson and the Sharks — who boast offensive talent such as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns — seemed like a match made in high-flying heaven.
Turns out, though, that Karlsson hasn’t quite delivered to the degree most expected.
Through 17 games this season, Karlsson has been the same minute-munching, do-everything defender as always, but the offense simply hasn’t been there. Not once has Karlsson, who has two 20-goal campaigns and 83 total goals under his belt across the past four seasons, found twine. Only seven times has he even found the scoresheet with more than half of his offensive total coming with the extra man. And both in and outside San Jose, his performance thus far has raised a few eyebrows, some even going so far as to call the deal a dud through the first quarter of the campaign.
To believe Karlsson’s performance is going to stay this way, however, would be foolish, because the perennial Norris Trophy contending blueliner is doing everything short of scoring. In fact, a dive into Karlsson’s underlying numbers paints a different picture of his performance.
Entering Sunday’s games, among defensemen with at least 50 minutes played at five-a-side, Karlsson ranks sixth in the NHL in Corsi for percentage (61.3), 16th in shots for percentage (59.3) and 18th in scoring chances for percentage (57.9). So why, despite the apparent on-ice dominance, have the points not been piling up for Karlsson? Well, that the Sharks’ overall shooting percentage is the league’s eighth-lowest at 5-on-5 (6.9) and fifth-lowest at all strengths (8.6) certainly doesn’t help matters. But that Karlsson’s on-ice shooting percentage — not just his personal rate, but that of he and his teammates when Karlsson is over the boards — is a mere 5.4 percent has stifled his offensive numbers.
There’s a case to be made, quite frankly, that Karlsson has been among the league’s most unlucky defensemen, offensively speaking. There are 136 blueliners who have been on the ice for at least 100 shots for at 5-on-5 entering action Sunday, yet only 16 have a lower on-ice shooting percentage than Karlsson, who sits at 5.4 percent. And of those 136 defensemen, the only rearguard who has been on ice for more shots for while boasting a lower on-ice shooting percentage is Carolina Hurricanes blueliner Jaccob Slavin.
It should be only a matter of time before Karlsson’s luck turns given his history, however. Over his decade in the NHL, Karlsson has been on ice at five-a-side for 6,665 shots for and 522 goals for a career 7.8 on-ice shooting percentage. And the disparity between this season and his career average speaks volumes. Karlsson’s lack of offensive success is an aberration, not the norm, and that’s why there should be no reason to panic in San Jose. In short order, the Sharks should be seeing flashes of exactly the same player who has finished top-two in Norris voting four times in the past seven seasons.
Karlsson isn’t alone in facing some unexpected early season struggles, and he’s also not alone in having numbers that would suggest his luck could turn at any minute. Here are four others who are bound to see greater success in the near future:
Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights
At some point, you have to start wondering if Max Pacioretty’s morning ritual consists of walking under an open ladder and waving goodbye to the black cat that has taken up residence in his front yard. Last season’s abysmal performance in Montreal — inarguably the worst since his rise to prominence with the Canadiens — seemed like a blip on the radar and the result of the Habs’ poor all-around performance. Turns out whatever bad luck was dogging Pacioretty last season, though, has followed him to his new home in Vegas.
Pacioretty’s shooting success has actually been worse this season than it was last, down to an ugly 5.1 percent on 39 shots, and he has mustered just two points, both goals, in 13 games with the Golden Knights. It doesn’t help that Tomas Tatar has dazzled in Montreal, of course, but everything points to Pacioretty turning it around. The ice has tilted heavily in his favor when he’s been on the ice — 55.6 Corsi for percentage, 58.1 shots for percentage, 56 scoring chances for percentage — and maybe once he shakes this bad spell, he’ll be back to being the 30-goal scorer he was in the past.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets
When it comes to the Jets, one probably doesn’t need to limit this to Ehlers. Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowry also fit the bill when it comes to some unfortunate offensive production. Even Patrik Laine’s 5-on-5 offense has been absent. But Ehlers’ lack of offensive impact is arguably the most concerning, particularly when Laine is at least producing on the power play. If Ehlers were to continue scoring as he has — or not scoring, as it were — he would finish the season with 16 goals and 32 points. That’s a 13-goal, 28-point downturn from last season. It’d be on par with his rookie year.
Why will Ehlers’ season turn around, though? A few reasons. First, he’s a career 11.3 percent shooter who is firing at 8.6 percent right now. He’s going to start finding twine more if he keeps putting rubber on net. He’s bound to. Another reason is that, like Karlsson, Ehlers has an abnormally low on-ice shooting percentage. His career average is slightly higher than 8.9 percent, yet this season he’s a full two-plus percent worse despite the best scoring chance for and high-danger chance for percentages of his career.
James Neal, Calgary Flames
A big-money off-season addition by the Flames who seemed a perfect fit for an offense in need of depth of scoring, Neal hasn’t lit the lamp as expected. In fact, he’s on pace for what would be far and away the worst offensive season of his career. In 17 games, he has three goals and four points, numbers that would suggest he’s headed for a 14-goal, 19-point campaign. It’s as if Neal has become Troy Brouwer, Part Deux.
So, why will Neal get it back on track? As you might be able to guess from the above assessments of Pacioretty and Ehlers, one major reason is pure shooting luck. A 12 percent shooter over the course of his career, Neal is at little more than half of that — 7.3 percent — through his first 17 games in Calgary. Additionally, though, produced 35 scoring chances, has taken 56 attempts on goal and boasts solid underlying numbers.
What could help Neal get some spark is a few big games in a row. Right now, the veteran winger’s production has been inconsistent. He hasn’t put up points in consecutive games all season. He can score in bunches, and the Flames will welcome it when the dam eventually bursts for Neal.
Tanner Pearson, Los Angeles Kings
Not much of anything has gone right for the Kings this season, as evidenced by John Stevens’ swift firing last week and subsequent replacement by Willie Desjardins. Los Angeles has looked slow and disjointed, Jonathan Quick has been fallen injured not once, but twice, and the offense has been toothless. Matter of fact, the attack has been so inept that it is scoring almost a quarter goal fewer per game than the next-worst offense in the NHL and the difference between the Kings and the league’s second-lowest scoring team overall is a full seven goals.
No player has been hit harder by the overall offensive ineffectiveness in Los Angeles harder than Pearson, though, who might count himself lucky if he ever scores again at this point. In 16 games, Pearson has mustered just a single assist and his struggles have landed him so deep in the doghouse that he’s got the fifth-lowest average ice time among regular Kings forwards.
This is a three-time 35-point forward we’re talking about, though, and one with consecutive 40-point campaigns as part of a Kings offense that was similarly low scoring. He has three 15-goal seasons and one 20-goal campaign under his belt, too. Pearson is also a career 11 percent shooter who hasn’t found twine yet despite 24 shots on goal — that’s ninth among all Kings — and that Pearson’s on-ice shooting percentage is a mere 1.28 gives more than enough reason to believe he’s due for some good luck any moment now.