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Karlsson having fun, playing well, not worried about future with Sharks

Defenseman settled in with new team, selected to 2019 NHL All-Star Game

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- The first time Erik Karlsson practiced with the San Jose Sharks, he skated with Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski in a 3-on-3 scrimmage Sept. 19.

The final play: Karlsson raced ahead, dug out a puck down low and passed across the low slot for Burns. Goal. Smile. Fist bump.

It was a preview of the season, not to mention the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game, a 3-on-3 tournament at SAP Center on Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), where Karlsson will represent the Sharks on home ice with Burns and Pavelski. 

Karlsson went through an adjustment period after the Ottawa Senators traded him Sept. 13. But since then, the two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman has played at an elite level, developed chemistry with his new teammates and made a good team better.

Video: SJS@EDM: M. Karlsson scores second goal of the game

"He's everything we thought he would be, not only as a player but as a person," general manager Doug Wilson said. "Watched him a lot and appreciated his game from a distance. Seeing it even closer up, it's special."

Karlsson has 41 points (three goals, 38 assists) in 45 games, fifth among NHL defenseman, 11 behind the leader, Burns (52 points; nine goals, 43 assists). Since Dec. 2, he has 26 points (one goal, 25 assists) in 18 games, most among NHL defenseman, one ahead of Burns, while playing a shutdown role at times, too.

The Sharks are 27-13-7, third in the NHL with 61 points. Since Dec. 2, they have gone 15-3-2, second in the NHL with 32 points in that span. They're 6-0-0 in their past six.

"It doesn't really matter for me individually what I do anymore," Karlsson said. "I kind of left that ship a long time ago. I'm happy to be on a team where we're playing well and want to do better and strive to be better at all times, and winning games is fun, and that's what it's all about."

* * * * * 

When Karlsson started slowly with 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in his first 26 games, it was understandable. It was a major adjustment on and off the ice.

Since leaving Sweden at 19, Ottawa was the only NHL city and the Senators were the only NHL team Karlsson had known. He played nine seasons for the Senators and was their captain, the main attraction when they hosted the All-Star Game in 2012.

The day of the trade, he teared up and called Ottawa his "forever home." He said he didn't know much about the Bay Area other than visiting San Jose as a player. He and his wife, Melinda, had taken a vacation to San Francisco after the 2017-18 season, venturing up to Napa and down to Palo Alto. That's about it. 

He didn't know much about his teammates either.

"Great passers, they always kind of know where people are before they get the puck," said center Joe Thornton, a great passer himself with 1,042 assists, 10th in NHL history.

Video: LAK@SJS: Karlsson, Hertl connect for sweet goal

Now think about what that requires.

"Great players, they do things other players can't do," said Wilson, who won the Norris Trophy himself when he had 85 points (39 goals, 46 assists) in 76 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1981-82.  

"I view it as a quarterback. His receivers have to run certain routes. When you have an elite mind, you're going to throw a puck to an area that you expect somebody to be going to."

Karlsson had to learn how to hit his receivers, and his receivers had to learn to expect the puck at times when they might not have gotten it before.

When Brenden Dillon was first paired with Karlsson about 10 games into the season, he joked that his job was just to get the puck to him.

"He kind of joked back, saying, 'Hey, you're going to get the puck a lot more than you think,' " Dillon said. " 'I'm going to be finding you. Always have your stick on the ice.' …

"There always seems to be a lane open when he's got the puck."

Now consider that Karlsson had to learn the Sharks' structure, too.

"We have different breakout rules," coach Peter DeBoer said. "We have different rules in the neutral zone, how we want to play. We have different things in the offensive zone that we're trying to accomplish. … We've got different emphasis points than Ottawa has."

Karlsson will tell you he has felt good all season. DeBoer will tell you Karlsson's transition took 10 to 15 games. And Wilson will tell you Karlsson was playing a lot better than people thought.

But the Sharks weren't playing well as a team, breaking down defensively too often, not clicking offensively like they could.

* * * * * 

The turnaround traces to Dec. 1, when the Sharks lost 6-2 in Karlsson's return to Ottawa. The next day, Wilson spoke to the team at the Bell Centre, and the Sharks defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. Two days later, DeBoer announced his staff was shuffling responsibilities, with Steve Spott taking over the defense.

"It was like rock bottom," DeBoer said. "That's enough. They knew how we had to play in order to have success, and up until that point, we weren't prepared to fully invest in that type of game. And sometimes you have to hit a rock bottom in order to bounce off that and get in the right direction."

Now Karlsson has gotten through his return to Ottawa. He has learned his receivers' routes and how to use his skills within the Sharks' structure, and his teammates have learned his tendencies too.

Dillon has found he often has extra time and space because Karlsson will hold the puck with poise and patience, draw opponents to him, and then dish it off. 

"What it usually comes down to in a fast game is making the reads before it happens," Karlsson said, "and I think that in that we found a way to figure out what to expect out of the other guy."

When you combine a player like Karlsson with talented teammates, points follow. It's both cause and effect. The Sharks have scored 3.55 goals per game, fifth in the NHL. They have scored 4.25 per game since Dec. 2, second in the NHL to the Tampa Bay Lightning (4.61).

One of the main reasons the Sharks acquired Karlsson was the power play. They have improved from 16th (20.6 percent) last season to seventh this season (24.6 percent). They're third since Dec. 2 (28.0 percent). Karlsson has 17 points on the power play, eight since Dec. 2.

From Dec. 7 through Jan. 8, Karlsson became the fifth defenseman in NHL history to record at least one assist in 14 consecutive personal games. Since Dec. 7, he is sixth in the NHL in scoring with 25 points (one goal, 24 assists) and first in assists. He's on pace for 67 assists, which would be an NHL career high. 

Video: SJS@EDM: Karlsson's snap shot eludes Talbot

But Karlsson has made an impact defensively, too. With Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic both out injured for four games from Jan. 5-10, Dillon and Karlsson excelled defending against top scorers like Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid. 

"His defensive game is as impressive as his offensive game," DeBoer said. "It's his gap. It's his stickwork. It's the number of pucks he turns over. … He's not a big guy, but he's surprisingly strong on his stick, on his feet, in the battles. You see him in the corners with guys a lot bigger than him, and he's usually coming out with the puck."

Dillon and Karlsson each is plus-19 since Dec. 2. Dillon, never better than plus-8 in his first seven NHL seasons, is plus-21 this season. Call it the Karlsson effect.

"He's just such a good player, just makes everyone better around him," Dillon said.

* * * * *

Karlsson can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He and Wilson declined to comment on the contract situation.

But when Wilson acquired Karlsson, he made it clear he wanted Karlsson for the long term. And at the very least, Karlsson seems comfortable on and off the ice. He said when he wakes up in San Jose, it feels routine.

"At the end of the day, I think that we're accustomed to everything here now," he said. "This is our new life, and we're happy where we're at, and we're excited about that and trying not to dwell too much about where we would have been if things would have been different."

Bottom line:

"Winning is fun," he said. "I think that's the No. 1 thing. With winning comes a lot of hard work and dedication, and I think the past 25 games or so, I think that we've been getting that from everyone.

"Everybody's starting to realize that that's something that we're going to have to bring every night, and if you do that and you put the hard work in, you know it's going to turn into a lot of fun and you're going to win a lot of games.

"I think with that said, I think that I am having a lot of fun, yes."

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