|By season's end, 19-year-old rookie Erik Karlsson had emerged as one of the key components of the Ottawa Senators' blue-line brigade, and with an even brighter future awaiting him (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Just three weeks into his rookie season, the teenage prodigy couldn't imagine the twists and turns his hockey life was about to take.
Much as he didn't come to training camp expecting to land a regular spot in the Ottawa Senators defence rotation, Erik Karlsson
surely wasn't ready for the sting of demotion, either. But out of that one-month stint in the American Hockey League emerged a blueliner that, by season's end, was accomplished enough to log the most ice time in his team's most important game of the season.
Perhaps that triple-overtime marathon in Pittsburgh against the defending Stanley Cup champions — the longest game in Senators franchise history — said the most about how far the 19-year-old Karlsson had come in such a short time. Not to mention establishing him as a cornerstone on the Ottawa blue line already.
"I think I made a lot of improvements since I first game here," said the native of Landsbro, Sweden, as he looked back upon his debut season in the National Hockey League. "I came here (in September) with really no hopes, just trying to do my best. I have to say I'm happy with my season."
So, too, are his bosses, who have to like the returns they're already getting from their top pick (15th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. And, as the old saying goes, he's only just begun. Imagine what'll happen when the 5-11, 175-pound Karlsson adds a little more size to a still-growing frame that held up more than well through the rigours of a long NHL season.
"He stepped up and got recognized around the NHL and he's going to be a really exciting player to watch," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of player development and hockey administration. "He's gained a lot of strength and a lot of power. But I thought the way he used his stick and his skating was really good. The biggest thing is, as he gets more experience, he'll learn how to adjust his game based on what the situation is and how much pressure is on him."
"I didn't really know what to expect when I came here. I didn't really have any big hopes about making the team. I just wanted to come here and do my best and try to prove to everyone that I could play here. Now, standing here, I (can say) that I accomplished everything that I wanted to. I did my best." - Erik Karlsson
Added Karlsson: "I'm not a big guy, so I need to have a big off-season and work hard in the summer and come back as a stronger guy."
While much of the talk entering the season centred around Karlsson's size — and whether he was built to handle the NHL grind — the Swedish defenceman's enormous skill set moved to the front of the discussion. When the Senators went on their season-changing 11-game winning streak in January, many of Karlsson's teammates pointed toward his emergence as a difference maker.
Mainly, they spoke about a defenceman with a laser of a shot from the point who also possesses the creativity and the vision to set up scoring chances for others. On the power play, in particular, it was just the kind of offensive jolt the Senators needed. Lee, for one, believes Karlsson is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential in that area
"I can see (Karlsson) cashing in more goals because he's got a really good shot," said Lee. "Once he learns to adjust his shooting angle and get more shots through, he's going to score off the shot or we're going to get a lot of goals off his rebounds, because he's got a very hard shot and an accurate shot.
"It's (also) incredible the way he can hit guys back door and he can find guys through the seams. That's a skill that's pretty hard to do. A lot of people think 'you can do it at one level, but can you do it at the next?' Well, he proved to everybody that he can do it at this level. So the future's bright."
Getting a taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs added to that growth curve, especially on that epic night in Pittsburgh when Karlsson found himself playing an incredible 40:38 of ice time.
"Never, I think," Karlsson said when asked if he'd ever seen more action in a single game. "It was fun. I wasn't that tired during the game, but you could definitely feel it afterward."
"A lot of people think 'you can do it at one level, but can you do it at the next?' Well, he proved to everybody that he can do it at this level. So the future's bright." - Randy Lee
As a Swede embarking on a new life in a new land, Karlsson found himself fortunate to benefit from the guidance of captain Daniel Alfredsson
, who travelled the same path to the NHL himself more than a decade earlier. It's clear that wealth of experience was a massive help, both on and off the ice.
"If he wasn't here, I don't know if I would be here right now," admitted Karlsson when asked about Alfredsson's impact. "He and has family have done so much for me and they helped me so much through everything."
Now, as he looks back at his first ride through the NHL, Karlsson can do so with a certain level of satisfaction and pride.
"I didn't really know what to expect when I came here," he said. "I didn't really have any big hopes about making the team. I just wanted to come here and do my best and try to prove to everyone that I could play here. Now, standing here, I (can say) that I accomplished everything that I wanted to. I did my best."
And the best, it surely can be said now, is still yet to come.