Around Ottawa these days, the all-star vote is the thing.
Voting closes at the stroke of midnight tonight, and on Thursday the NHL will most likely announce starters for the Jan. 29 All Star Game in the nation’s capital. The Senators should be well represented. Heading into the final hours, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, centre Jason Spezza and defenceman Erik Karlsson were all on track for starting assignments.
Voting was simple enough; fans punched in votes early and often, with no qualms about the legitimacy of any of Ottawa’s top players taking part in the all-star festivities on their home ice.
But will members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) have Karlsson’s name in mind when they lay down their Norris Trophy votes in April?
Not likely. And yet the soaring level of Karlsson’s play, not to mention the point totals he is amassing, have to at least put him in the conversation when it is time to discuss the NHL’s top defencemen.
Just a couple of months ago, the idea of Karlsson getting Norris consideration would have been laughable. At 21, in his third NHL season, Karlsson was routinely losing physical battles and getting caught out of position.
As recently as Monday, Senators head coach Paul MacLean reworked an old Brian Kilrea expression to talk about the bright and dark sides of Karlsson.
Kilrea once famously screamed into the ear of our pal Shean Donovan, when he was a member of the Ottawa 67′s: “Donovan, I don’t know if you’re playing right wing for me or left wing for them!”
Likewise, at the outset, MacLean wanted to be sure Karlsson was producing points for the Senators, and not the Senators AND the opposition.
“We said we’d like to play him 30 minutes, but we want to make sure they’re all for us,” MacLean said. “We’ll only play him 15 if he’s going to play 15 for us and 15 for them. Right now, he’s playing 27 for us, and we like that.”
Twenty-seven and then some if the game goes into overtime. In Monday’s 3-2 OT victory over the New Jersey Devils, Karlsson set up goals one and three, and was plus one while playing 32 minutes 39 seconds of a 64-minute game.
Karlsson’s slick quarterback pass to send Jason Spezza in for a breakaway goal early in the third was classic Kid Karlsson. Not that he always dishes, Karlsson unloaded enough on his own to tie Ilya Kovalchuk with six shots on goal.
In a word, Karlsson was brilliant, eating up minutes when Chris Phillips went down with an injury in the second period, zipping up and down the ice in the manner of a Swedish rover, shinny rink style.
Karlsson is often far from the position one might expect a defenceman to be in, , but when he scoots back to nullify a breakaway (he got just enough of Kovalchuk’s stick to thwart a semi-breakaway in the second period), is he really out of position?
As MacLean so often understates: “He can skate.”
That Karlsson leads all NHL defencemen in scoring with 37 points in 40 games should gain him entry to the Norris roundtable discussion, but that might be it. Check out the accompanying chart. Since the lockout, only Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings won the Norris while also leading in points by a defenceman, and he did it twice (2006, 2008).
Mike Green stands out as the point-prolific defenceman with holes in his defensive game who couldn’t quite win over voters.
It is worth noting the description of the Norris Trophy ideal: “The defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.”
In other words, snap a picture of Lidstrom, the seventime Norris winner, and you essentially have the prototype. Only Bobby Orr, with eight, has won more Norris awards.
Lidstrom has been called the perfect defenceman: Big, smooth, smart, tough to beat one-on-one and dangerous with a point shot.
Karlsson’s similarities to Lidstrom probably end with their Swedish birth certificates. A more suitable Norris role model for Karlsson is Duncan Keith, the Chicago Blackhawks’ wheel man who earned top defenceman honours in 2010.
Keith can flat out fly, and so can Karlsson. Neither player is going to intimidate anyone physically, Keith generously listed at 6-1, 196 pounds while Karlsson is 6-0, 180 with his equipment soaking wet.
Their game is darting into openings that scarcely exist, it is moving the puck and skating like the wind on a frozen Canadian river. To watch either player from an arena seat during a live performance is to not take eyes off them – where are they off to now? How will this mad dash turn out?
It takes a while for young guns to build up their Norris street cred. Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are two that have been emerging as threats, although Doughty is having an off-year in L.A.
As they were last season, Zdeno Chara (2009 Norris winner) of the Boston Bruins and Weber of the Nashville Predators will likely be Lidstrom’s main competition.
Down the road, it will be interesting to see which young Ottawa defenceman will be first to win a Norris, Karlsson or Jared Cowen, the Senators rookie who has been a standout defender, a sort of anti-Karlsson, but with emerging versatility.
DEFENCEMAN SCORING LEADERS, NORRIS WINNERS SINCE LOCKOUT
The Senators’ Erik Karlsson leads all NHL blueliners in scoring with 37 points in 40 games. Here’s a look at the season leaders since the lockout (Norris Trophy winners in parentheses).
2010-2011: Lubomir Visnovsky, Anaheim, 18 goals, 50 assists, 68 points, plus-18 (Norris went to Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, 62 points)
2009-2010: Mike Green, Washington, 19 goals, 57 assists, 76 points, plus-39 (Duncan Keith, Chicago, 69 points)
2008-2009: Mike Green, Washington, 31 goals, 42 assists, 73 points, plus-24 (Zdeno Chara, Boston, 50 points)
2007-2008: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, 10 goals, 60 assists, 70 points , plus-40 (Lidstrom)
2006-2007: Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim, 15 goals, 54 assists, 69 points, plus-six (Lidstrom, 62 points)
2005-2006: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, 16 goals, 64 assists, 80 points, plus-21 (Lidstrom)