|Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson poses with the James Norris Trophy after being named the league's top blueliner at the 2012 NHL Awards in Las Vegas on Wednesday night (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk mused wistfully a day ago about the magical year that Ottawa blueliner Erik Karlsson has enjoyed.
"This has got to be the highlight of his young life, that in a very short period of time he's secured himself a great livelihood with a great organization," Melnyk said Tuesday in the hours after the Senators inked Karlsson, the Swedish blue-line phenom, to a seven-year contract. "He's getting married two weeks from now and he's up for best defenceman (in the National Hockey League). That means a lot to any player ... to be the best in the world or even to be nominated among the best has to be a childhood dream that he's now living.
"It's interesting that we're here in Las Vegas because it's the city of dreams. For him, it's actually come true."
The fairytale got even better Wednesday night.
In a stunning leadoff to the 2012 NHL Awards in Las Vegas, the 22-year-old native of Landsbro, Sweden, became the first Senator to be named the winner of the James Norris Trophy, which is presented annually to the league's top defenceman. He topped Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators by 12 points (1,069-1,057) in voting by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, with Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins placing third.
Karlsson is also only the third Senators player to earn an individual league award. Captain Daniel Alfredsson claimed the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1996, while Jacques Martin won the Jack Adams Award in 1999 as the league's top coach.
Normally an affable sort with a deft sense of humour, Karlsson was clearly taken aback by the moment.
"It’s very special and I don’t think I really understand everything that is going on," he told reporters afterward. "It’s just a special feeling right now. It’s not something that I counted on, especially not now. It feels just really good, I think. I’m just a little bit nervous. I’ve never been this nervous before in this kind of way.
"In one way, it’s very frustrating because I want to be who I normally am. But it’s very big and it’s a great honour that I will look back on as being one of the best days of my life ... I've never been a part of something this big. It's something that kind of took me by surprise a little bit. I'm just very honoured by everything."
Emerging on top in a high-end group of finalists just added to the enormity of it all for the youngest Norris winner since former Islanders captain and current Senators broadcaster Denis Potvin earned his first of three in 1976.
"Both those guys had terrific years and they’ve been good players for a number of years and they have many more to come," Karlsson said of Weber and Chara. "Just to be nominated with those guys is something that’s very rare. I respect them a lot as players and as (people) as well. I still watch them on TV like I did a couple of years ago and it’s something that I know is very rare and very special, and I’m very humbled by this."
"It’s very special and I don’t think I really understand everything that is going on. It’s just a special feeling right now. It’s not something that I counted on, especially not now. It feels just really good, I think. I’m just a little bit nervous. I’ve never been this nervous before in this kind of way. In one way, it’s very frustrating because I want to be who I normally am. But it’s very big and it’s a great honour that I will look back on as being one of the best days of my life." - Erik Karlsson
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a fellow Swede and Karlsson's good friend and mentor, admitted the stage was overwhelming for a young player not used to being in such an environment.
"(Karlsson) doesn’t get nervous often, but this is a different kind of stage that he’s not used to," said Alfredsson, noting Karlsson hadn't prepared an acceptance speech because he didn't want to "jinx" his chances of winning. "I thought he handled himself really well. He didn’t really expect it too much and he didn’t want to be too disappointed if he didn’t win. But he’s obviously extremely happy and you could tell how much it meant to him."
While Karlsson didn't fully grasp what it might mean to win, he surely does now.
"It's just very special, that's probably the best word to describe how everything is," he said. "It's a huge honour and it's very big. I couldn't be more happy with where I am right now. It's pretty hard to say how great it feels."
The Senators blueliner had a season for the ages in 2011-12, producing 19 goals and 78 points. The latter total was the highest recorded in the NHL by a blueliner since 2005-06, when Swedish legend Nicklas Lidstrom — a seven-time Norris winner and an idol of Karlsson's — notched 80. Karlsson also boosted his plus-minus figure from -30 to +16 in the just-concluded season, a testament to his improved defensive play.
"This is a huge acknowledgement and a huge compliment to him," Alfredsson said of the Norris honour. "And he deserves it. The season he had for us was spectacular. I remember numerous times during the year where you watch plays he makes and you’re just laughing on the bench and saying to guys ‘did you just see that?’ He has that ability to make unbelievable plays and stand out among some very good players. He’s very deserving and I’m so happy for him."
Minutes after Karlsson's victory was announced, Ottawa goaltender Ben Bishop expressed the sentiments of a team and an organization on Twitter.
"Congrats to EK on winning the Norris!!! Great guy and hell of a season buddy!!" wrote Bishop.
In addition to the Norris, Karlsson was also named to the NHL's season-ending first all-star team, finishing as the top vote getter among defencemen. He's only the third Senator to achieve that distinction.
Meanwhile, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues was a landslide winner of the Jack Adams Award, topping MacLean and John Tortorella of the New York Rangers. The Masterton went to Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens, with Alfredsson and Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs the other two finalists.