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Karlsson: 'I've come a long way since I came here'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
While Erik Karlsson is the NHL's highest-scoring defenceman by a wide margin, he's equally proud of the strides he's made with his play in his own end of the ice (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images).

Of all the audacious numbers that currently sit beside his name, it is far and away the least glamorous of the bunch.

But that particular statistic — his +14 in the plus-minus department — probably says the most about Erik Karlsson's rapid ascent toward elite status among the National Hockey League's top blueliners. And it is likely the one that brings the 21-year-old Ottawa Senators defenceman the greatest level of satisfaction.

Never mind that it's games like the one on Monday afternoon against the New York Islanders, when Karlsson matched a career high with four points (two goals, two assists), that earn the flashy Swede maximum airtime on the highlight reels. It's his many offensive gifts that make fans shell out good money to watch him play. Karlsson will tell you he's equally determined to show everyone involved with the game that he takes care of business in his own end of the ice as well.

"That's one of the things I want to prove to myself, at first," said the Senators' top pick (15th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "That I can play an all-around game and be (on the ice) in as many situations as possible, in any type of game and at any time in a game. I've come a long way since I came here and if I can keep improving, I'll be even better defensively as we go along."

Karlsson, who's listed at 6-0 and 180 pounds, isn't likely to overwhelm any opponent with physical play. But his positional play has improved immensely and, with speed to burn, Karlsson can quickly atone for any mistakes he might make.

"As a player, he's grown," head coach Paul MacLean said following Senators practice earlier today at the Kanata Recreation Complex. "You're allowed to learn and you're allowed to get better, and I think that's what he's done. His success is more an indication of his ability to grasp the game and to grasp it quickly. His skating ability, I think, is what separates him from a lot of people. He's not a big man, but he defends with quickness and speed, and he's learned how to do it real well."

Again, the numbers don't lie — a year ago, the two-time NHL all-star game participant sported a minus-30 rating and was considered a huge liability in his own end. Not anymore. Only veteran Filip Kuba, at +18, rates higher on the team in that category than Karlsson now — and it's no coincidence the duo happen to be defence partners.

"The big thing is experience," said Karlsson, who has benefited from the veteran wisdom supplied by Kuba, Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar. "The more games you play, the more accustomed to certain situations you get. We have a couple of older guys who have been around and play well defensively. That's helping out, as well.

"I'm getting help all the time with (his defensive play) and the coaches have been good in teaching me what to do and what not to do. Most of all, it comes with experience. I've improved my way of reading the game in certain situations. There are going to be times when you mess up and as long as you work to undo it, I think it's okay. I don't consider myself a high-risk player anymore."

Captain Daniel Alfredsson, a fellow Swede and Karlsson's biggest mentor since he first arrived in Ottawa four seasons ago, believes he's a perfect fit for the style the Senators are playing under MacLean. And the team as a whole benefits from that match.

"We play the skating style that fits his game," said Alfredsson. "(MacLean) has done a really good job of allowing him to be offensive and guiding him defensively, too, without frustrating him. He's been a good listener, too, and his plus-minus rating speaks for that. He's done a great job improving in our end, getting pucks out and being in (the right) position. He's been really good."

Of course, no discussion of Karlsson would be complete without bringing up those offensive numbers that continue to turn heads around the NHL. With 57 points (12-45) in 60 games, he's on pace to record nearly 80 for the season. That would shatter the franchise record of 63, set by Norm Maciver in the Senators' expansion season of 1992-93 (his standard for blueliners for assists is 46, a number that isn't likely to last the week).

All of which is starting to generate talk that Karlsson deserves consideration for the James Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's top blueliner. That thought is almost overwhelming to him.

"It's something I'm going to have to think about after the season, when everything is over," he said. "It's a big honour and it's something that every defenceman wants to (achieve). I'm flattered that people think that, but there's also a lot of guys who have been working hard for a number of years to win that nomination."

Among them is Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner and every young Swedish blueliner's ultimate idol. And what if Karlsson were to find himself on the same ballot as the Detroit Red Wings' surefire Hall of Famer?

"It would mean a lot to me," he said. "It would make me feel good about what I've done and what the team has done for me as well. Something like that doesn't happen every year. I know that and it doesn't happen in (every defenceman's) career, either. I've just got to try to do my best and see where it takes me."

MacLean, for one, "can't wait" to see how much further Karlsson can take his game in the years ahead.

"His game has grown a lot, but I think there's still areas and places where it can still grow," he said. "But as far as I'm concerned, his growth potential is basically up to him ... his ability to comprehend the game and his dedication to the fitness aspect of the game, along with his continued growth as a player and seeing the ice and using the people around him."

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