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Senators' Karlsson receives lavish praise

Islanders legend Potvin wowed by skills of Ottawa defenseman

by Chris Stevenson / Correspondent

OTTAWA -- Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin once wondered how Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson would withstand the grind of the National Hockey League.

Potvin, a Senators broadcaster at the time, went to a member of the Ottawa training staff and asked how the slender defenseman, in his first training camp, had done in strength testing.

"I was interested in his strength," Potvin said, "because I'm thinking about preservation because he looked small and the way he plays … the way he plays, he's susceptible to getting hit."

Potvin was told Karlsson had jumped an impressive 9 feet in the broad jump, one of the tests to determine the strength and agility of a player.

It was one of the first times Karlsson would impress Potvin. It hasn't been the last.

Karlsson, 25, is poised to join Potvin as the only NHL defensemen to lead their team in scoring three seasons in a row. Potvin, now a broadcaster for the Florida Panthers, did it four consecutive seasons with the New York Islanders from 1973-74 to 1976-77.

Video: PIT@OTT: Karlsson nets unconventional milestone goal

"I've got to do it next year, too? The pressure is on," Karlsson said when told of Potvin's record.

With one game left in the season, Saturday against the Boston Bruins (12:30 p.m. ET; SN1, RDS, NESN+), Karlsson has 81 points (16 goals, 65 assists), tied for fourth in the League. Forward Mark Stone is second in scoring on the Senators with 61 points.

Karlsson scored the 100th goal of his career Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins; it took him 477 games. It is the fastest route to 100 goals by any defenseman to enter the League in the past 20 years.

Among defenseman who have entered the NHL since 1995-96, only Mike Green of the Detroit Red Wings (483 games) and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators (495) have reached 100 goals in fewer than 500 games.

The inconsistency of the Senators this season and their failure to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs takes the glow off any personal achievements, Karlsson said after the Senators' 3-1 win against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Karlsson had an assist against the Panthers, setting the record for the most points in a season by a Swedish defenseman, passing Niklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, who had 80 in the 2005-06 season.

Karlsson's 65 assists are most in the NHL this season. Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks is second with 62.

"It's tough to get any excitement out of anything right now," Karlsson said. "I feel good about my game and certain things out there. Overall, it's been a good year for me, even though it's been the most frustrating year I've had so far. We've got one more game here and we'll have to evaluate it after the season. Right now, it's tough to overcome that dissatisfaction by not being in the spot you want to be in with the team that we have."

Teammate Bobby Ryan said there are times on the bench when he finds himself almost like a fan, marveling at what Karlsson can do.

"He's the one of those guys who sees the ice better and moves the chess pieces around better than anybody else I've seen," Ryan said. "He reads players better, too. He knows a guy doesn't turn as well left to right, when you don't think about that. He knows stuff other guys don't think about.

Video: NYI@OTT: Ryan feeds Karlsson for OT winner

"The points are one thing, but just the little things he does out there are more impressive. You know he's going to throw points up. In a bad year, he's going to get 65. It's incredible."

Karlsson's physical gifts, as illustrated in Potvin's anecdote, are the foundation to his extraordinary skating ability.

Ottawa assistant general manager Pierre Dorion scouted Karlsson at an under-18 tournament in 2008.

"He was 5-10 and just under 160 pounds, but you saw something special there as far as puck skills," Dorion said. "Skating was good, but wasn't as dimensional as it is now. You saw the puck skills and the offensive ability and you just said, 'Wow.'

"I remember calling [Senators general manager] Bryan [Murray] and saying, 'I just saw a guy who I think can be a star in the NHL.' "

At the 2008 NHL Draft, Murray traded up to take Karlsson, because he heard the Anaheim Ducks were going to select him with the No. 16 pick. Ottawa, at No. 18, made a trade with the Nashville Predators to move up to No. 15.

"Was it a bit of a gamble?" Dorion said. "At that point in time it was, but you knew he was going to go in the first round some time.

"I thought he was going to be a real good player. Remember how good Danny Boyle was? I thought he'd be a Danny Boyle with more skating ability.

"But to be the dynamic, special player that he is now? I'd be lying if I said that."

The Senators have five players with 50 or more points this season. For Karlsson to have 81 points means he is driving the offense almost singlehandedly.

Ryan said Karlsson's skating ability allows him to carry pucks out of the defensive zone and seamlessly positions him as the Senators' offensive catalyst.

"When he breaks the puck out himself, he's already in the rush," Ryan said, "so he gets a lot of points right there, which a lot of other defensemen don't have the opportunity to do.

"I think the best offensive defensemen make great first passes, but they don't join as much as he does. He's three strides away from catching a guy 15 or 20 feet ahead of him, which allows him to be creative like that."

Potvin, who won the Norris Trophy three times as the League's top defenseman, said he would give his vote to that skinny defenseman he saw a few years ago. Karlsson, who has already won the Norris Trophy twice, is still impressing Potvin.

"I would vote for Karlsson, no question," Potvin said. "I understand that type of player. When he's on the ice, the Senators have the puck. They always use to categorize a player's game by saying 'Oh, he could really slow the game down.' Now when you talk about possession, that's huge."

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