Erik Karlsson, 33, is the same one we’ve always known… in some ways. He commands a piece with the same disarming charm and swagger he had as a superstar in his early twenties, but this version carries so much more with him.
The baggage he carries is the grueling arc of a career that seemed to culminate in the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Playoffs. By then, he had already won two Norris Trophies and finished second twice more, racking up four First-Team All-Star selections by 27. His Ottawa Senators had moved to a Game 7 goal in overtime. reach the Stanley Cup Final. The ‘best player in the world’ discussion usually revolved around Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Karlsson at the time, but then came the Valley. During the 2017 offseason, Karlsson underwent surgery which included, in his own words, “the removal of half of his ankle bone.” He started his season late, the Senators escaped the playoffs and Karlsson ended up being traded to the San Jose Sharks in a summer blockbuster.
His body never cooperated after that. He missed 29 games in 2018-19, his first season with the Sharks, with a lower body injury and a groin injury. A broken thumb stole 13 games the following year. He went through most of the shortened 2020-21 campaign before a disastrous 2021-22 in which he missed 32 games thanks to COVID-19, surgery on his left forearm and a lower body injury. .
The meat grinder chewed it up and spat it out the other side, but Karlsson was still standing – for the entire 2022-23 season. He played in every game last season and made it count, becoming the first defenseman in 31 years to record a 100-point season and win the third Norris Trophy of his career. When he accepted his accolade last week at the NHL Awards in Nashville, he did so with the weariness of appreciating how hard he fought to return to his glory days.
“I’ve always been, in my own eyes, this is where I belong, this is where I should be every year, even though it’s hard to do and hasn’t happened,” he said. Karlsson said. “But I’ve always believed in myself. Being healthy for a long time really gave me an idea of how important it is to take care of your body and yourself. There are some things you can’t. I think the most important thing right now is to stay healthy, and that’s obviously been a big part of the season.
Karlsson also referenced the difference between the third Norris and the first two. He was the third-youngest winner in league history when he won his first in 2011-12, a full career ahead of him feeling invincible. Now he’s a father of two young children, after a season that very few saw coming, and he’ll never take that for granted. As he said last week, he found himself “loving hockey again” last season.
“I feel great where I am, both personally and professionally,” he said. “I think it was a season where I’m going to choose to take all the good bits out of it and try to learn from every situation that’s been thrown at me throughout the year and try to m ‘get out.”
With that newfound joy and desire to soak up a special year, of course, comes the understanding that Karlsson is running out of opportunities for the ultimate feat of hockey joy. He wants a trade out of San Jose. He understands how complicated it can be to execute, but he is hopeful. It currently carries a cap of $11.5 million over four more seasons. Significant salary retention from the Sharks side will be a necessity to facilitate any deal, but general manager Mike Grier has been adamant that his team will not consider the maximum retention of 50%. He also publicly stated that he didn’t just want to give away the reigning Norris Trophy winner.
Therein lies the conundrum: you don’t want to give someone who is playing at such a high level, but because Karlsson recouped so much of his trade value last season, the environment for a trade should be more fertile than ever in theory. Karlsson is as much a champion of his own worth as anyone. Never lacking in self-confidence, he believes he can maintain the dominance he showed in 2022-23.
“I feel like I had a fantastic year and I felt good the whole way through, but I always feel like there’s more to it,” he said. “And that’s what will make me excited going forward.”
Any team that makes a splash with Karlsson will understand that they are acquiring one of the best pure attacking defenders to ever play, but trading for Karlsson still presents pitfalls. On the one hand, it’s possible he sold himself for the offense and the centennial of a team that went nowhere in the hunt for the playoffs last season. This could have artificially inflated his numbers somewhat. Second, he was decidedly below average defensively at 5-on-5. He was second among NHL defensemen in team scoring odds by 60 with him on the ice, but he was third rank the team’s on-ice scoring odds against by 60, ending any debate over whether Norris’ vote leans toward offense. .
Again, Karlsson did what he did on one of the weakest teams in the NHL. In the right situation, a team could isolate him from the toughest defensive matchups and maximize his game-driving ability, which remains elite. Feeling healthier for six years, all he wants is a chance to show what he can do in a team with something to play for. Now it comes down to whether a team tempts Grier with the right offer.