Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson taking unfair heat; NHL's best unsung rookie.
Off The Draw
Here are four points to ponder about the the surprising and tenacious Senators, who have a shot at a playoff berth with two games left to play (Thursday at Rangers; Saturday at Flyers):
• Erik Karlsson might just win another Norris Trophy: Midseason injuries to Kevin Shattenkirk and Mark Giordano opened the race to be recognized as the NHL’s top defenseman to a surprisingly broad field of contenders. Drew Doughty will earn consideration, but the regular-season Drew simply isn’t as transcendent as the postseason Drew. Shea Weber might pick up a few extra votes as a result of Nashville’s success and a desire to compensate him for so many runner-up seasons, but he might not even be the best defenseman on his own team (see: Josi, Roman). P.K. Subban and Duncan Keith are in the mix as well, but as Bob McKenzie’s coaches poll revealed there is one clear favorite.
A scout we spoke with on Monday didn’t just agree with that assessment. He leapt to the defense of a player he feels gets unfairly dogged by fans and the media outside of Ottawa. “The thing with Karlsson is that everyone is ready to pounce on every little mistake he makes,” the scout told SI.com. “Everyone’s looking for that ‘gotcha’ moment so they can say, ‘See? What did I tell you?’ They’re waiting for something to reinforce their perception [of Karlsson as a defensively soft player] when what they should be doing is appreciating all the other things he does right. There’s so much to admire about the way he plays the game, even beyond what he does offensively. To my mind, he’s an easy choice [for the Norris] this year.”
Maybe not easy. Karlsson was a mess earlier in the season while offering his detractors plenty of red meat to chew on. But the change behind the bench from Paul MacLean to Dave Cameron (and the return of partner Marc Methot) seemed to re-ignite his pilot light and he’s been contributing consistently excellent play in his own zone along with his usual offensive flourish (15 points in his past 14 games). Given what he’s meant to a team that’s made such a remarkable late-season push, he’d be a worthy winner.
• Bobby Ryan sucks: His words, not mine. Asked by the Ottawa media if a nagging injury was behind a slump that’s seen him score just one goal and four assists during his past 18 games, Ryan brushed off the excuse. “I’m fine. I just suck right now.”
A top-six winger who is paid handsomely to score goals, Ryan has been relegated to the fourth line at times during the past few games as Cameron has tried to spark Ryan’s linemates with a fresh winger. That makes sense in the short term, but the Sens will only make the postseason if all hands are on deck. Ryan is more likely to break out of this slump with more opportunities instead of fewer.
• Mark Stone is the best rookie no one is talking about: Considering Filip Forsberg’s fast start, Johnny Gaudreau’s hot finish and the consistent excellence of teenager Aaron Ekblad at the game’s toughest position, Stone is destined to fall short in the race for the Calder Trophy. Still, the 22-year-old has quietly established himself as a dangerous presence on Ottawa’s top line with his 61 points tied for second on the team and among all NHL freshmen. His +18 rating leads the league's rookies and his 16.0 shooting percentage ranks second among players who have skated in at least 50 games. Stone has overcome long-held concerns about his skating by focusing on improving his strengths. He’s fearless down low, which allows him to create opportunities and finish with his quick release.
• The Senators gotta win: In regulation, no less. In fact, they most likely need to run the table in order to slip by Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit or the New York Islanders, all of which are within three points of the Sens with three spots up for grabs.
Going into Tuesday night’s action, Ottawa’s “tragic number” was four, meaning any combination of points lost by the Sens or gained by the Pens, Bruins, Wings or Isles adding up to four ends their dream of postseason play. The good news is that they only need one of those teams to slip up. And all are vulnerable, though the Bruins hold the ROW tiebreaker over Ottawa and have a game in hand while the others do not.
Detroit has the softest schedule, with its final two against the Canadiens in Montreal (4/9) and the Tomatocanes in Carolina (4/11), but the Wings have won only four of their past 12 games and can’t seem to get two decent goaltending performances in a row. Boston has won five straight, but the B's are facing the possible loss of Zdeno Chara, who is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, and a pair of brutal matchups on the road against Washington (4/8) and Tampa Bay (4/11) that sandwich a softie in Florida (4/9).
Pittsburgh seems to be the most likely victim if only because the Senators knocked off the Penguins in OT on Tuesday night and turned them over to the Islanders (4/10), a team that has beaten Sidney Crosby and Co. three times in four games this season. However, the Isles have problems of their own after dropping a last-second shocker to the Flyers. And the Sens probably shouldn't expect assistance from the Sabres on Saturday, but if they take care of business they won’t need to worry about that.
• Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter top Kevin Shattenkirk’s list of the NHL’s top defensemen. Some fascinating insight here from a player on the brink of joining that list himself.
• It looks like Rogers Sportsnet will continue to waste one of its greatest talents when the playoffs open next week. What a shame.
• Here’s something you don’t see every day: a player penalized for involving himself in the play while on the bench.
• If you’re 15 to 18 years old and your dream of making it to the pros is fading fast, the NHL has an opportunity that might be right for you.