To say that 2011-12 was a breakout season for Erik Karlsson would be putting it mildly.
The Senators expected big things from Karlsson when they took him with the No. 15 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. He was OK as a rookie in 2009-10 and improved to 13 goals and 45 points the following season -- though his minus-30 rating hinted at problems in the defensive zone.
But a young player's third season is often the one in which the light goes on, and few lights have been shining brighter this season than Karlsson's.
The 21-year-old has been far and away the NHL's biggest point producer among defensemen. He joined Hall of Fame members Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and Denis Potvin as the only players in NHL history to lead all other defensemen in scoring by more than 20 points. He's the biggest reason the Senators have gone from No. 13 in the East this past season to seventh -- and back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"When he's on the ice, he makes things happen," goaltender Craig Anderson said.
Karlsson tops the Senators in a variety of other offensive stats. But, surprisingly, he's also tops -- by a comfortable margin -- among NHL defensemen in takeaways and has gone from being one of the worst plus-minus players in the League in 2010-11 to one of the best this season.
"The biggest thing I've seen in his game is that he's a two-way player," Anderson said. "If he makes a mistake, he's the first guy back and he makes a big play defensively."
Karlsson is the engine that makes Ottawa's offense go. It's no accident that his breakout season has coincided with a return to form from No. 1 center Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson -- as well as a career year by forward Milan Michalek, who has reached the 35-goal mark this season after never scoring more than 26 times previously.
One reason for Karlsson's success is the emphasis on speed stressed by new coach Paul MacLean. Whatever doubts critics may have had about Karlsson, skating was never one of them. MacLean's style has proven to be perfect for Karlsson.
"The way the game is played now, you have to have a lot of speed," Karlsson said. "But you also have to have a lot of creativity, and you've got to be able to create opportunities for yourself. All the teams play pretty solid defense and [MacLean] came in with that philosophy -- that we needed to generate a lot of speed and create a lot of opportunities and not just sit back and hope the other team makes mistakes. It's been working pretty well for us."
Anderson feels Karlsson is the one player the Senators can't do without.
"We wouldn't be where we are right now without him," Anderson said. "I can't say that for any other defenseman in the League right now -- that their team is so dependent on one player.
"Not that we rely on just one player -- but, in the grand scheme of things, he is our Sidney Crosby or whatever you want to call him for our team."