OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators have a defenceman who's making people stand up and take notice of his play so far this NHL season.
Unfortunately for rookie Erik Karlsson, it's been Russian teammate Anton Volchenkov. However, ahead of the visit of another highly touted Swedish blue-liner in Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman, the Senators have given Karlsson a vote of confidence as the schedule ticks toward the magic 10-game mark that could have decided the 19-year-old's fate for this season.
"Erik's a young guy who's going to be an NHL player for a long time," Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray said Wednesday. "Whether he's here for every game or whatever this year, I don't know that, but 10 games won't be the trigger point."
Like all rookies, the first-year of Karlsson's contract kicks in once he plays his 10th NHL contest and the Senators' prized prospect has had a hit-and-miss start through the first five games of his career.
He's been projected as a puck-moving defenceman whose strengths would be in the offensive end and on the power play.
While he does have one point, an assist, through five games, he's also minus-4 and has been part of a Senators' power play that's the league's worst heading into Wednesday night's games, going 1-for-15 for a success rate of just 6.7 per cent.
Making the buzz around Ottawa's blue-line instead has been the 27-year-old Volchenkov, who's rebounded from an off year a season ago to find the form that made him and partner Chris Phillips a top defensive pairing in the league.
"He's a physical presence back there. A little bit of an unsung hero," Senators coach Cory Clouston said. "He doesn't get a lot of fanfare, but the things he does are very valuable to the team. Physical play, solid shot-blocking, good defensive-zone coverage, obviously he plays against top lines."
The Moscow native doesn't even hit the most on the Senators - that would be Chris Neil - but he's the most feared in the Eastern Conference if not the league, centre Jason Spezza said Wednesday. Count New York Islanders prized rookie John Tavares and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby among the players he's run over so far.
Volchenkov also makes life easier for the Senators' goaltenders, blocking 17 shots through the first five games, second to the 20 of Pittsburgh's Jay McKee.
"He's really talented," Senators winger and fellow Russian Alex Kovalev said. "He's got a big body and he can use it well . . . I don't know how many broken bones he's had, but it's amazing the way he blocks shots."
Volchenkov was troubled with nagging injuries last season and said being healthy has made a big difference so far. Otherwise, he just shrugs his shoulders when a TV reporter asked about his nightly appearance on the highlights for a big hit.
"It's just a part of the game, hitting hard," Volchenkov said.
Karlsson has also featured in highlights, too, but often those of the other team, such as Monday's 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh when he was on the ice for three goals against, including one scored into his own net when a clearing attempt struck him and went in.
With Filip Kuba out with an undisclosed injury, speculation grows that Karlsson's could be headed for the team's Binghamton affiliate in the American Hockey League or back to Sweden for more seasoning when Kuba did return.
However, the Senators appear ready to live with some growing pains.
"He's been a little bit inconsistent maybe," coach Cory Clouston said. "The bounces right now are almost going against him. This is going to help him down the road. It's how you react to bad games and how you react to struggling. We've got to give him support."
Karlsson was part of Sweden's team that won the silver medal at the world junior championship in Ottawa in January.
The captain of that team was Hedman, whom the Lightning selected with the No. 2 pick in June's draft after Tavares went first overall to the Islanders.
While much of the focus of that tournament was on the 18-year-old Hedman, it was Karlsson who was named its top defenceman.
Hedman appears to be adjusting quicker to the NHL, however.
Through the Lightning's first five games, Hedman has four assists, is plus-2 and leads the team with a whopping 25 minutes 40 seconds of ice time.
Karlsson's averaging exactly 18 minutes of ice time partnered with Chris Campoli, and the Senators admit that may be too much.
"Sometimes it might seem like I lack a bit of confidence, but it's a new league and I'm a young guy a it'll pick up the more I play," said Karlsson, who's generally pleased with the start of his NHL career as a whole.
"It's a difficult game here, you need to be a lot faster," he said. "If I'm sent down or sent anywhere else, I don't think I would have done anything different."