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Senators thrilled to see Karlsson named captain

by Chris Stevenson

OTTAWA -- The crisp white "C" on the left shoulder of Erik Karlsson's red sweater isn't going to stand for "Change."

When the 24-year-old defenseman was named the Ottawa Senators' ninth captain Thursday, it ended weeks of speculation about the role after Jason Spezza's one-year run ended with his trade to the Dallas Stars in July.

According to Karlsson and Senators goaltender Robin Lehner, who have known each other since they were in their mid-teens, there is no doubt how the honor will affect Karlsson.

It won't.

"He's himself, I think. His own character, he won't change from that. He's not going to try and be anybody else than he is, no matter what position he will be in, he will never change," said Lehner, who met Karlsson in Gothenberg, Sweden, when they were trying out for the Frolunda Indians.

"The first time I met him, you play a tournament to get into Frolunda, our team back home, to get into their school program. You play like a showcase tournament to get into their program. We were on the same team. I was 14 and I think he was 15. He was the exact same player then, the exact same guy.

"It's kind of funny. The exact same guy. That's what I like about him."

Lehner said Karlsson's ability to remain true to his character as a person and a player is one of the foundations of his success in the NHL and has helped lead him to the Senators captaincy.

"That's why he won the Norris Trophy [in 2012]. He didn't change. He's gone up through all the different levels and I've seen it: Coaches have said to him, 'Don't dangle on the blue line. Don't dangle as the last guy.' It's never fazed him," Lehner said.

"He's just done it because he gets it done. If he turns it over, he gets it back. It comes to a point where the coach just says, 'Do whatever you want.' He's never questioned his own ability and I think that's what has been making him so successful."

Senators forward Bobby Ryan said Karlsson being named captain confirmed his stature among the Senators players.

"Karl is our leader out there. Karl's our best player and arguably one of the best in the League. The decision was right," Ryan said. "He's taken a lot of steps personally in the last year to become a more mature guy. He's earned a lot of respect."

Karlsson said the best way to handle the responsibility of being captain is to keep doing the things that earned him consideration in the first place.

"It's not something I could have wished for when I got here," said Karlsson, who was the 15th pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. "It was so far away, kind of unreal sometimes. I'm very honored and it's very exciting for me to have this opportunity that they trust me with the responsibility. All I can do is come here every day, be at my best and be who I am."

Karlsson is one of the NHL's best defensemen. He's won a Norris Trophy and his offensive skill is the foundation of his game. He has 237 points in 315 games in the NHL, including 78 in 81 games when he won the Norris.

His defensive game has led to criticism; Senators coach Paul MacLean described it as "shoddy" last summer, and Karlsson has vowed to try to improve his play in his end of the ice.

When the criticism about his defensive game was raised, Karlsson laughed it off.

"I'm terrible," he said. "It doesn't bother me at all. It's one of those things that comes along with the territory. They place me in some situations and in some situations they don't think I'm the greatest. That's the way it's always going to be, probably. It's not something that I worry about at all. I know I have the trust from my coaches and my teammates and the organization to do what I do. I think my defensive game is as good as it has to be. Obviously, it can be a lot better. It's something I work on improving every game and every day.

"If people want to say that's my weak part, they're probably right."

Karlsson is dealing with the lingering effects of having his left Achilles tendon cut by the skate of forward Matt Cooke in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 13, 2013.

Karlsson said his leg will never be the same, but he is learning to deal with it. He said his brain is sending messages to his body to protect the area of the injury and that's prevented him from playing the way he did. He said it's a slow process, but he is slowly overcoming the instinct to favor his left leg.

"I still don't feel the same way as I did before the injury, but I think I'm more accustomed to it now and it feels a lot better," Karlsson said. "There's always things I can improve and that will get better along the way. As of right now, I feel a lot better than I did last year, and especially with the summer I had, I think I should be able to last longer and feel better about my game."

"It's unfortunate that happened, but in this business, people get hurt. It's something I'm going to have to deal with for the rest of my career. It's just the way it's going to be and there's nothing I can do about it."

MacLean said he wants to see Karlsson play at his best offensively more often and improve his defensive game.

"Can he keep it there? That's the challenge for Erik. That's enough of a challenge," MacLean said. "Can you have your game at that high level and improve on that game defensively? That's going to be important for our group and we believe Erik can embrace that."

MacLean wants more consistency from the player. Lehner said Karlsson already has that quality as a person.

"You see through guys that change. You hear them talking and you'll never see that in Erik," Lehner said.

"He says what he thinks and I really appreciate that."

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