By stuhackel
February 23, 2012

Only 21, Erik Karlsson has blossomed into the NHL's best offensive defenseman. (JC Salas/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

It's a bit too early to say whether Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson will be one of the NHL's three Stars of the Week next Monday -- and because it will be trade deadline day, who is even going to notice? -- but he's got a great head start with seven points in his last six periods of play.  With his goal and two assists in Ottawa's 5-2 win over Washington on Wednesday night, Karlsson leads all NHL defenseman in scoring with 60 points -- 20 more than his closest pursuer, Florida's Brian Campbell.

Karlsson's 47th assist on Wednesday set a new Sens franchise record, breaking Norm Maciver's mark of 46 set during the team's inaugural campaign of 1992-93. He's now only three points shy of Maciver's team mark of 63 points by a d-man in a season.

Playing in a small market is part of the reason Karlsson hasn't gotten the acclaim he should. It doesn't help matters when NBC's Mike Milbury touts him for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, as Milbury did last night, either not realizing that Karlsson has already played two full seasons or perhaps confusing him with Devils rookie Adam Larsson.

Karlsson is just 21, and obviously doesn't have the name recognition nor resume of Shea Weber, Nick Lidstrom or Zdeno Chara. But he has zoomed to the top ranks of blueliners this season. Last season (yes, Karlsson indeed played last season), he was a minus-30 on a poor, directionless team. Today, he's plus-15 on an excellently coached club that is one of the NHL's surprises -- and he's a big reason why they are.

So the inescapable question is, should Karlsson be the favorite for the Norris Trophy as top NHL defenseman?

That was the discussion on TSN Wednesday night between periods of the Capitals-Senators game (video). Host James Duthie called Karlsson "the breakout player of the year....We've watched him go from up and coming young player to superstar in the span of 60 games."

Duthie's panelists Aaron Ward, Marc Crawford and Bob McKenzie narrowed the Norris talk down to either Weber, the rugged 26-year-old Predators captain whose very well-rounded game has only gotten increasingly better during his seven NHL campaigns (he's a career-best plus-18 on the season to this point) or Karlsson, whose defensive play is not nearly as developed as his play with the puck.

Ward opted for Weber, but he admires Karlsson's play, illustrated by the Senators' second goal of the game, which he analyzed for the panel. Karlsson hesitated for an instant behind his own net on the breakout to read the play, picked up Milan Michalek's route and made a 100-foot stretch pass as Michalek cut across the far blueline.

"Smart play by Erik Karlsson," Ward said. "You see as he comes back, the puck ends up in his zone and as he's going back to retrieve it, once he corrals this puck, his head is up off the short post. He's looking past the first layer of coverage of the Washington Capitals, not only looking for the open player but also the open ice."

McKenzie also leaned toward Weber for the Norris, but acknowledged that the "sheer volume of points" Karlsson has accumulated may tip the scales in his favor. It's "Paul Coffey-esque," he said, referring to the great Hall of Fame blueliner for the mid-'80s Oilers who was unquestionably the most skilled offensive defenseman of his day, the only man to ever rival Bobby Orr's scoring totals.

However, Coffey was denied the Norris early in his career because of his perceived defensive deficiencies -- even in 1983-84 when he totaled 126 points, outscoring every NHLer except Wayne Gretzky. That year, the voters gave the Norris to the Caps' outstanding defensive defenseman Rod Langway for the second straight year. But in 1984-85, Coffey's dynamic game could no longer be ignored and he was awarded the first of two straight Norris Trophies. (He'd get a third after the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 while playing for Detroit).

Prior to Coffey, Norris Trophy winners were exclusively either superb defensive defensemen or excellent all-around. But in the orgy of offense that was the '80s NHL, what Coffey provided to his club could not be denied.

Coffey remains something of an exception in the history of Norris winners, although in the 25 years since he succeeded Langway, we no longer see winners who are strictly defensive defensemen. They've all been exemplary at both ends of the ice, with Karlsson's countryman Lidstrom -- who has won the Norris seven times -- a perfect case study. Should Karlsson win it this year, it would be largely because of his offensive dimension and a departure for the voters. Games like the ones he's had this week could go a long way to facilitating that.

On the TSN panel, Crawford supported Karlsson's selection and used some highlights from the Caps-Sens game to make his point. "Offense counts for a great deal," he said as he marveled at all of Karlsson's offensive attributes -- his vision, speed, ability to read the play and find the open man with his passes, his penchant for jumping into the rush, his fearlessness going to the net, and his scoring ability.

Karlsson's game-opening goal last night, which he orchestrated and finished, showed many of those attributes.

That's just perfect execution: Karlsson again starting from behind his own net and reading the play, passing to Filip Kuba to Jason Spezza, who does a quick give and go with Michalek, back to Spezza -- all the Caps are sucked toward the boards on the strong side while Karlsson slips unguarded into the zone on the weak side.  While Bobby Butler causes a bit of a commotion with Mike Knuble in front of Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun, Spezza gets it to Karlsson, who sees his opening and rifles the wrist shot between Vokoun's legs.

Crawford especially liked what Karlsson did on the third Sens goal.

"This is the great clip that shows everything," Crawford said, "the great speed to back off the defenseman, the ability to walk the blueline, the deception and the ability to get the shot through. That is something that very few people have in the National Hockey League. It's the things that general managers want when they just rave about a defenseman and this guy right now, he's arguably the best in the league."

They are certainly appreciative of Karlsson's play in Ottawa, as Steve Warne of the Team 1200's "Three Guys on the Radio" program epitomized the morning after the game, putting the stretch pass by Karlsson to Michalek for the second goal in context. "I liken the guy to a really good quarterback," Warne said. "That was a great example of that on that goal where he's coming up ice, he's got time and space and if you give that guy time and space, he's going to absolutely annihilate you. He checked off two or three guys and then finally saw Michalek sprinting to the boards and perfect billiard pass right on to the tape and that's what Erik Karlsson does best and that's why so many (Senators) forwards are having excellent years, I think, because he's always doing that."

True enough. Ottawa ranks sixth in goals scored with 185. Karlsson's 60 points mean he's been in on just about one-third of their production. If he wins the Norris Trophy, that should help Mike Milbury learn who Erik Karlsson really is.

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