Little D-man, big contract.
Giant expectations, for a 22-year-old.
Even while celebrating his new seven-year, $45-million deal – a cap hit of $6.5 million — in the giddy, glitzy venues of Las Vegas, even while joking with a Sportsnet interviewer that “what goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” Erik Karlsson is keenly aware of all of that comes with this contract.
“It’s a special feeling,” Karlsson said. “It’s going to be higher expectations from everyone, especially you guys [the media]. I know how it is and I know how it works.”
Maybe. But he hasn’t lived it yet. Toward the end of his NHL career, Wade Redden signed a deal worth $6.5 million per and it became an albatross and source of humiliation he dragged with him down to the minors.
Of course, Karlsson is not Redden (save your nasty messages). Karlsson’s best days are ahead of him or should be, Redden was slowing down, a living, breathing red flag to his declining abilities.
In just his third NHL season, Karlsson exploded into an offensive star, a 78-point defenceman worthy of a trip to Vegas as a Norris Trophy nominee. Chances are, Karlsson will win the award (kudos to both parties in this contract for not waiting to see what the Norris would be worth as a bargaining chip.
But none of what he has accomplished came with the burden of a big deal. The kid is right. Expectations will be different. If he goes five games without a point, he will get ripped on the postgame show for not living up to the money.
Remember when Drew Doughty signed for similar money, last fall, got hurt early on, came back and didn’t play well? He was a bum, suddenly.
“Yeah, I think that’s why I struggled the first half of the year, put all that pressure on myself, with a big contract,” Doughty would say after his season turned around, shall we say spectacularly?
“I just wasn’t doing the things I knew I could, I wasn’t happy coming to the rink every day. I was disappointed in my play. I was disappointed that I wasn’t playing up to the standards I had got myself into. Finally things started turning around. My play definitely got a lot better.
“Every single game I was going out there, I knew everyone expected me — I needed to put up some points, play well defensively, have a plus-rating. I put all that pressure on myself and everything just kind of stirred up in my mind, and I just wasn’t myself. It is hard to live up to those expectations, but now I’ve realized that you just have to put all that stuff in the back of your head and be yourself.”
Words for Karlsson to live by. He might not need them. He might not suffer an injury, or a setback, his star might shine more brightly than it did in 2011-12. But we saw in the playoff series against the New York Rangers how much heat a big strong team can bring on a small defenceman.
Doughty found his game, and helped lead the Los Angeles Kings to their first Stanley Cup in 45 years.
Expectations of Karlsson will be no less than to one day help deliver Ottawa’s first Cup since 1927.