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Sweden embraces Karlsson as next great d-man

by Risto Pakarinen
With 301,938 Eriks and 195,933 Karlssons living in Sweden, the odds of one of them collecting the most votes in for an NHL All-Star Game may have been bigger than you thought. Of course, it did take one special Erik Karlsson to make it happen.

Sure, the Ottawa fans rallied behind their players to make sure they got as many of them as possible into the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game played at Scotiabank Place, but they didn't vote Karlsson in just for his good looks. Not all 939,591 times.

Five years ago, his already promising hockey career was on the rocks, as the 15-year-old Karlsson had left his hometown, Landsbro, in southern Sweden, about 350 kilometers south of Stockholm, for a hockey high school in Södertälje, about 30 kilometers to the southwest of Stockholm.

He played with Södertälje SK, the local club, that had its senior team in the Hockeyallsvenskan, the No. 2 league in Sweden, but Karlsson played with the club's under-20 and under-18 teams.

Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 35 | PTS: 41
SOG: 152 | +/-: 7
Or, we should say, he started the season playing for those two. Halfway through the season, he had not only scored 10 points in 10 games with the under-20 team, he had also got into trouble at the school and wanted to go back home -- or leave Södertälje anyway.

The club didn't want to let him just walk, without compensation, so Karlsson had to sit out the rest of the season, wait for things to get settled, and just skate with his hometown team. The next summer, he signed with Frölunda, a big Elite League club based in Gothenburg.

Suddenly, his career was rolling again and it was on the fast track.

In five years, he's gone from having to sit out half a season to winning a Swedish junior title, winning the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with Team Sweden, winning World Juniors silver with Sweden, getting elected Best Defenseman at both the U-18 and the U-20 World Championships to getting drafted by the Senators to playing in his second All-Star Game.

And the kid is just 21 years old.

"I'm not going to sign with an NHL club until I'm mature enough to play there. It's better to play here than in the AHL," Karlsson said in 2008, after an exhibition game between Frölunda and the Senators.

A year later, he had signed with the Senators, and played in Binghampton in the AHL. But his stint only lasted 12 games, and he's been in the NHL ever since.

Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Karlsson has scored 86 points, more than any other defenseman in the League, and one more than Nicklas Lidström. Can there be a more fitting passing of the torch than it going from one Swedish defenseman to another -- a young star whose favorite team used to be the Red Wings?

However, while Lidström is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, Karlsson still has some work to do with his defensive game. While he racks up the points like no other defenseman, it's also true that since the start of last season, only six defensemen have a worse plus-minus than Karlsson's minus-23.

"We said we'd like to play him 30 minutes, but we want to make sure they're all for us. We'll only play him 15 if he's going to play 15 for us and 15 for them. Right now, he's playing 27 for us, and we like that," Senators coach Paul MacLean told the Canadian Press.

This year, Karlsson is plus-7, and he's second in team scoring with 41 points in 43 games. Jason Spezza has 42 points.

He has traveled far and fast, and, who knows, in a couple of weeks, he may be the All-Star Game's first pick, too -- especially if Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson is named one of the captains.

"My kids wouldn't have it any other way," said Alfredsson, a fellow Swede and Frölunda alumnus, and Karlsson's mentor. During his rookie season, Karlsson lived with Alfredsson and his family.

But, Alfredsson's selection, if he makes it, will not be based purely on sentiment. It will be a hockey decision, as well.

"He's not afraid to make mistakes but he knows he can rely on his speed to make up for those sometimes. He has that mentality to want to be the guy and always has been," Alfredsson said.
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