The San Jose Sharks landed the biggest fish on the market in the off-season, acquiring one of the most dynamic players in the NHL, Erik Karlsson. Anytime you throw a 2-time Norris Trophy winner into the mix, it’s a win but how exactly will Karlsson make the Sharks better? Well, he’s one of the best puck movers in the game and is a better defensive player than most people (not including his new coach) give him credit for. So let’s take a look at what Karlsson brings to the table and where he will improve his new team.
Exiting the zone with control of the puck wasn’t a strength of the Sharks last season, nor was it something they tried to do at a high rate. At even-strength, San Jose dumped the puck out on 22% of its exits, the 8th highest dump-out rate in the league. As a result, the Sharks ranked 25th in how often they skated the puck out of the zone, 27th completing stretch passes out of the zone and barely cracked 50% in how often an exit led to offensive zone possession, ranking 2nd last in the league in that area.
They can use some help and Karlsson is one of the best on the planet.
Karlsson ranked 5th amongst defensemen and 14th in the league in how often he skated the puck clean out of the defensive zone last season. Stretch passes – nobody connected more than Karlsson who averaged an NHL best 3.3 completions per game. Remember this one from the playoffs a couple season ago?
Sauce for days.
Karlsson is, what I call, a bus driver. He drives possession up the ice at a high rate and can do it with his feet and with his stick. His skill as a puck mover will be welcome in San Jose.
Erik Karlsson is a liability in his own end and is a turnover machine…..popular, albeit false narratives that still get pushed by those who clearly haven’t watched him play much over the last several years. Karlsson and new teammate Brent Burns are both high-event players with and without the puck. In fact, Burns led the NHL last season in stick checks, averaging 2.7 per game while Karlsson also finished top 10, averaging 2.3 per game (9th). Another metric to evaluate defensive impact is blocked passes. Burns and Karlsson were the best in the league getting their sticks into passing lanes.
Add up blocked shots, stick checks, blocked passes and you get our defensive impact number – total defensive plays. Karlsson ranked 3rd overall with 11.4 per game, the same number as countryman and recent Norris Trophy winner, Victor Hedman.
As for the Karlsson turnover narrative – sure, he turns the puck over a lot but it’s not because he’s not good with it, it’s because he has it on his stick more than anyone else. Karlsson led the league in puck possession per game last year. If you evaluate his ability to make plays on a percentage, rather than a volume basis – he’s well above average. Karlsson turned the puck over on 11% of his possessions in the defensive zone last season. Of the 136 defensemen who played at least 1,000 even-strength minutes, Karlsson ranked 23rd in D-zone turnover rate.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said, “What I love about Erik’s game, everybody looks at the offense, but he’s an exceptional defensive player, too.”
He’s not wrong.
The Sharks powerplay was okay last season, middle of the pack at 16th overall. Karlsson can run a powerplay and is a great entry option. Last season, Karlsson gained the zone with possession 52 times on the man advantage but it’s what he does once he’s in the zone that’s most impressive. 40% of Karlsson’s entries led to a scoring chance – the best percentage of the top 25 players in successful PP entries.
Karlsson also does a good job of getting pucks to his teammates in the middle of the ice – something the Sharks do very well. Last season, San Jose ranked 2nd in slot shots per 20 minutes of powerplay time. Karlsson ranked 35th in passing pucks to the middle of the ice.
SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS
As a team, the Sharks ranked 4th last season at even-strength shot attempts per game so we know they have no problem ripping pucks at the net. Neither does Erik Karlsson. Karlsson averaged the 2nd most EV shot attempts per game last season – the only guy ahead of him, Brent Burns. These guys love to fire the puck – the only problem – they’ve got Happy Gilmore-esque accuracy. Of the top 75 players in EV shot attempts last season, Karlsson and Burns ranked last and second last in accuracy, putting 34.5% and 35% of their attempts on net, respectively. The Sharks hit the net on 47% of their attempts at even-strength last season, dead last in the NHL. Karlsson will help the Sharks in a number of areas but don’t expect shooting accuracy to be one of them.
Karlsson is a top 5 talent in the NHL and I’m particularity excited to see how his skills as a puck mover affect the Sharks breakouts. San Jose was middle of the pack creating scoring chances in transition last season – I won’t be surprised if they jump up a few spots this year with EK65 on the backend. He’s that good.