Erik Karlsson: From green to greatness

Erik Karlsson: From green to greatness
Erik Karlsson #65 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the New Jersey Devils during the game at the Prudential Center on April 7, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey.

By Andrew Duffy
In the future, when the history of the current Ottawa Senators is written, the night of June 20, 2008 will loom large.
That evening, on the floor of Scotiabank Place — the site of that year’s NHL entry draft — Senators general manager Bryan Murray was growing increasingly anxious. His team held the 18th selection, having finished a turbulent regular season by scraping into the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Senators bowed out of the postseason in four games.
Earlier in the day, in an effort to steady the ship, Murray had placed the team’s mutinous goaltender, Ray Emery, on waivers. But there was more work to be done.
Murray watched as a raft of quality defencemen came off the board early: Drew Doughty went second to the L.A. Kings; Zach Bogosian third to the Atlanta Thrashers; Alex Pietrangelo fourth to the St. Louis Blues; Luke Schenn fifth to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Senators’ GM worried that the defence prospect he had identified would be gone before his turn arrived.
After towering defenceman Tyler Myers went to the Buffalo Sabres with the 12th-overall selection, Murray learned that a team in front of him was interested in his draft target.
He started working the phones. Among others, Murray called David Poile of the Nashville Predators, a GM rich in defencemen thanks to a 2003 draft that had brought him future all-stars Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
Poile accepted Murray’s proposal. At the time, it seemed an insignificant deal: Nashville would give Ottawa its 15th pick in return for the Senators’ 18th pick and a third-round selection in the 2009 draft.
Moments later, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came to the podium: “We have a trade to announce — and you’re going to like this one,” Bettman prophesied to the Ottawa crowd.
The Senators’ brain trust gathered at their draft table. Then, to chants of “Alfie, Alfie, Alfie,” captain Daniel Alfredsson approached the microphone to announce the Senators’ first-round selection: Swedish Elite League defenceman Erik Karlsson.
He was a decidedly slim pick. At 5-10 and 157 pounds, Karlsson seemed an unlikely candidate to anchor an NHL blue-line, much less serve as a franchise cornerstone.
And yet, in four short years, Karlsson has done just that.
Although a featherweight by NHL standards — the average player is 6-1, 205 pounds — Karlsson has become one of the NHL’s most dynamic performers: An unlikely giant who now stands as a Norris Trophy candidate, a game breaker who could change the way NHL teams think about defence.
“He’s certainly making people take notice of the type of defenceman who has a big impact on your team,” says Murray. “There have always been one or two of those guys, but at this stage of his life, he’s really taken it to another level.”
Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey brought a “special dimension” to their hockey teams, Murray says. It’s a dimension that may be more valuable than ever in today’s NHL.
“Because the game is so fast now, and is defended so well — the level of goaltending has improved a lot — I think more teams now are going to have to emphasize doing a better job with their defensive corps,” Murray says.
“Erik is more than a transition defenceman: He’s an impact defenceman because of his ability and mobility with the puck.”
It’s a remarkable journey for a player who has always been labelled too small for the job.
* * *
Erik Karlsson was born in the scenic South Swedish Highlands, in the small town of Landsbro, on May 31, 1990.
He was the son of a landowner and sometimes lumberjack, Jonas, who played elite league hockey in Sweden (Karlsson’s number, 65, represents the year that both his father and mother, Ulla-Karin, were born).
Karlsson grew up playing tennis, soccer and hockey.
“In a small community, there wasn’t much else to do but play sports,” Karlsson said in a recent interview.
Jonas Karlsson was the biggest influence in his son’s hockey career, once blasting six-year-old Erik with a slapshot to dissuade him from ever again donning goalie equipment. It worked. Erik settled on defence, where his father wanted him.
“It’s the only position I’ve ever known,” he says, adding: “I don’t know, maybe I could have been a forward. But maybe I would have been a bad one instead of a good defenceman.”
Although he has enjoyed an ascendant career, Karlsson has also known his share of adversity.
As a young teen, Karlsson decided his future rested with hockey rather than soccer. So he dedicated himself to the sport, and by the time he was 15, he was regarded as the best player in his age group.
At 16, he signed with Swedish SuperElit League team Södertälje SK and attended a residential school, Vakstanäs, that was affiliated with the junior hockey club.
But Karlsson was unhappy in his new situation and soured quickly on his discipline-minded school.
He returned home to Landsbro after playing only 10 games with Södertälje (he recorded 10 points).
Karlsson asked the hockey club to release him from his three-year contract, but Södertälje management didn’t want to give up the young prospect.
Team officials announced that any club that wanted to sign Karlsson had to compensate them: They demanded more than $20,000. It was a lot of money for a skinny 16-year-old.
When Karlsson returned home, he wasn’t sure if — or when — he’d get the chance to play again in the country’s top junior league. He practised with his local team and worried that his promising career could be over before it had started.
When stories about his plight were published in the Swedish press, however, Södertälje backed down. Karlsson signed with Frölunda HC, where Daniel Alfredsson had once played.
Karlsson helped the Frölunda Indians win Sweden’s junior championship, then turned heads at the under-18 world championship in February 2008. He seemed to own the puck, recording seven points in six games.
Critically, for the Ottawa Senators, Karlsson developed a relationship with Anders Forsberg, a coach with the Swedish national junior team.
That same Forsberg was hired by the Senators as a European scout in March 2008, based on a recommendation from the Red Wings’ legendary scout, Hakan Andersson, who had identified for Detroit such stars as Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Bryan Murray had worked with Andersson while he was Detroit’s coach and GM in the early 1990s.
In the weeks leading up to the 2008 draft, Forsberg helped convince the Senators that Karlsson could make an impact in the NHL despite his size.
“He (Forsberg) had known Erik since he was a quite a young player,” remembers Murray. “And he just knew that Erik was a really competitive guy: a guy who really wanted to come and be a good player in the NHL.”
Team officials met with Karlsson at the scouting combine in Toronto, then again in Ottawa one day before the draft. Everyone was impressed by his self-confidence.
Murray was still worried, though, about Karlsson’s size. The team’s then-conditioning coach, Randy Lee, assured him that Karlsson could add another 20 pounds with some dedicated time in the gym.
Murray swallowed his doubts in deference to what his scouts characterized as Karlsson’s “special abilities” — and traded up to get him.
Questions about his size followed Karlsson to his first media scrum as a Senator on draft day. He was asked how much weight he thought he needed to add to play in the NHL.
“Yeah, of course I need to get bigger,” he told reporters. “But I’m going to let nature take its course and work on my strength … How tall and how much pounds I am going to gain isn’t up to me. The only thing I can do anything about is the strength.”
Karlsson said he had hoped the Senators would pick him. “That they made a trade, it says they believe in me and they want me — so I’m going to make them happy some day,” he predicted.
Karlsson also put his self-confidence on display — “As first choice, it’s always a lot of pressure, but I can handle pressure” — and let it be known that he was his own man. Asked what defenceman he modelled his game after, Karlsson said there was none.
“I have my own game I think,” he said.

* * *

Erik Karlsson’s game has developed more rapidly than almost anyone — save maybe Karlsson himself — could have imagined.
In his first NHL season, 2008-09, the 19-year-old was sent to the minors nine games into the year without a goal to his name.
Karlsson was upset, breaking down with emotion when Murray delivered the bad news, but returned to the NHL after only 11 games with Binghamton. He finished the year with a respectable 26 points and a plus/minus of minus-5.
His offence blossomed in his second NHL campaign, as he recorded 13 goals and 45 points. But his high-risk style often resulted in turnovers, which contributed to the team’s league-worst goal differential. Karlsson’s minus-30 rating placed him third last among 777 NHL players.
That offseason, Karlsson packed on muscle in the gym and worked with a track coach to improve his explosiveness as a skater.
It is this part of his development that has most impressed the man who gambled on him.
“He’s got a lot stronger,” says Murray. “At the beginning of his career here, he was a little overmatched at times … He went from a guy who didn’t work out a lot — he looked like a guy who was pure talent — to a guy now who has good strength. His quickness, his skating ability, have really developed because of that strength.”
“That to me is the advantage he’s had over a lot of other young guys: His overall body composition has changed a lot and it’s all because of what he’s done off the ice.”
Karlsson finished this season with 78 points, including 19 goals. His plus/minus improved dramatically to plus-16.
As a result, he could soon become the youngest player since Orr to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman.
Orr, who was only 20 years old when he won the first of eight consecutive Norris trophies, is among those who marvel at Karlsson’s ability.
“This kid has wonderful speed. Great, great hockey sense,” Orr said last month in an interview with the Ottawa Sun.
Karlsson also has a fan in Coffey, second on the all-time scoring list for defencemen. “What’s not to like? He’s not afraid to make a play,” Coffey told the Edmonton Journal.
“Karlsson has the long stick and he’s smart. He’s slight, but guys like him are built for speed,” said Coffey, the player to whom Karlsson is most often compared.
Still, there’s no doubt that — as Karlsson suggested on draft day — he does possess a unique game.
In the defensive end, he uses body position and an active stick to break up plays. He relies on his speed to retrieve the puck before forecheckers can descend. When beaten to the puck in a corner, he tries to control the opposing player rather than take him out of the play.
With the puck, there’s no defenceman in the league who can do as much. His shot is hard and accurate. He can skate the puck out of his own end, but he also has the vision to break down defences with his passing.
He is thankful the Senators have allowed him to play that game: “I think Ottawa has done a good job in letting me play the game that got me to where I am today. They’re not trying to shape me into something I’m not.”
The only question now is whether that skill game can translate to the playoffs, when brawn and bloody-mindedness so often win the day. The early evidence is worrying.
Such doubts are nothing new to Karlsson. His goal is to become the kind of defenceman who can play in any situation at any time of year. He’s convinced his game is good enough to do that.
“You have to believe in yourself,” he says.

* * *

This offseason, Karlsson will marry his fiancée, Therese. They’ve been together for three years. He proposed to her last summer.
They now make their offseason home in Gothenburg, Sweden, her hometown. Karlsson relaxes by playing tennis and fishing. He loves the outdoors, the ocean and, of course, video games.
He grew up pretending to be electronic versions of his Swedish hockey heroes: Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Lidstrom, Alfredsson.
Alfredsson has become his friend and mentor in Ottawa. Karlsson boarded with the Alfredssons when he first arrived in the city.
The Sens captain taught him the unwritten rules of the dressing room and introduced him to Ottawa’s social scene. They still spend a lot of time together, even though Alfredsson is 18 years his senior.
Karlsson even sounds as earnest as Alfredsson when he talks about how he intends to improve: “I know I’m not ever going to be a big guy,” Karlsson says, “so I’ve got to do everything I can to take advantage of the opportunity I have by improving my body.
“I have to get as strong as possible. It’s something I’ll have to work on for a long time.”
Murray professes a certain degree of satisfaction at watching Karlsson, his draft-day gamble, become a premier NHL defencemen.
“Erik’s one of the special kids,” he says, “because it has happened so fast.”
Murray has talked with his Nashville counterpart, Poile, about the deal that brought Karlsson to Ottawa (with its picks from Ottawa, Nashville selected goalie Chet Pickard in 2008 and forward Taylor Beck in 2009, both of whom remain in the minors).
“David and I have laughed about it since,” says Murray. “He says, ‘I really screwed up by not taking the guy.’ ”

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