|Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson says he is focused on becoming a complete all-around defenceman, not just a points machine (Getty Images).
Perhaps someday, he'll be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest defenceman his homeland has ever produced.
Erik Karlsson surely intends to give it his best shot.
"He's been an inspiration to me," the Senators blueliner said of Detroit Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom, a fellow Swede and seven-time Norris Trophy winner who announced his retirement from the game on Thursday. "I want to play hockey the way that he does and be that kind of player one day."
In the 2011-12 campaign, Karlsson racked up 78 points — the highest total for a National Hockey League defenceman since Lidstrom put 80 on the board six years earlier. But the Senators' top pick (15th overall) in the 2008 NHL Draft knows there is still plenty of work to be done to put himself into the class of Lidstrom, who enjoyed a 20-year career in the Motor City.
"My main priority has always been to be more of an all-around player," Karlsson said today in an interview with Sportsnet Radio Fan 590 in Toronto. "I want to play in situations where the game is on the line and I want to be able to play both defensively and offensively. My defensive game is something I need to improve on to be an elite player and it's something I'm going to have to keep working on in every game and every day.
"Craig Anderson, our goaltender, played great for us this year and he probably bailed me out a couple of times."
While his offensive statistics drew plenty of acclaim this year, Karlsson is equally happy with numbers such as his vastly improved plus-minus — he went from -30 a year ago to +16 in 2011-12 — and the 67 takeways that topped all NHL blueliners.
"(Defensive play) is something that I wanted to improve and I need to take care of first," said Karlsson, a finalist this year for the Norris Trophy — awarded annually to the league's top defenceman — along with Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins. "It helps scoring points, but you don't want to be called a (defensive) liability. You want to earn the coach's trust and everything. It's something I've been working on all season and trying to improve. It's fun to see that the numbers are healthier, too."
Karlsson feels humbled by the Norris nomination, the first of his three-year career. He's one of three Senators who will be up for honours when the 2012 NHL Awards are held June 20 in Las Vegas — head coach Paul MacLean is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, while captain Daniel Alfredsson is a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, presented to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance and dedication to hockey.
"My main priority has always been to be more of an all-around player. I want to play in situations where the game is on the line and I want to be able to play both defensively and offensively. My defensive game is something I need to improve on to be an elite player and it's something I'm going to have to keep working on in every game and every day. Craig Anderson, our goaltender, played great for us this year and he probably bailed me out a couple of times." - Erik Karlsson
"It's a great feeling and it's something that's very special," said Karlsson, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Thursday. "It's something that I never expected to happen this early in my career. It's something you want to be a part of, but it's definitely not something that I counted on. I'm very, very proud and I'm very, very happy to be able to be up with those kind of guys (Weber and Chara).
"Hopefully, I can keep this up and not let it be a one-season kind of thing."
Again, Karlsson can look toward Lidstrom — whose consistency throughout his two-decade career was a hallmark of his character — for an example in that area.
"The day when he retires is something that you don't want to see," said Karlsson, who grew up idolizing the 42-year-old native of Vasteras, Sweden. "He's had a great career. He's been around for 20 years in the league and he's basically done it all. He won the Olympics, he's won the (Stanley) Cup four times and he's been the best defenceman for so long. Even though he retired, he's going to be around for a long time.
"Players are going to respect him and know who he is for a very long time ... He's a player who changed a lot of things for a lot of kids growing up and the way you think the game. He's going to be well-remembered by a lot of people for a very long time."
The Sens defenceman can likely say a lot of the same things about Alfredsson, a friend and a mentor since Karlsson first arrived in Ottawa to begin his NHL career three years ago.
"(Alfredsson) is the kind of guy who has always been around for Swedish hockey players," said Karlsson. "He started playing professionally in the '90s and that's when I grew up, so I've been watching him for a long time. I've been him on the video games and things like that. I always knew who he was and when I finally got to meet him and play with him, I saw why he's been so successful and why he's the great person that he is.
"Guys like him, along with Lidstrom and (Mats) Sundin and (Peter) Forsberg, have really made Sweden into a hockey loving country. They've been so good for so many years and they've inspired a lot of young kids to start playing hockey."