clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Let’s talk about Erik Karlsson

Whatever your opinion of his play has been this season, you are right.

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

There has not been a more polarizing player on the Pittsburgh Penguins this season than defenseman Erik Karlsson. At this point, three quarters of the way through the season, I think the easiest way to describe his play is that whatever you think of it, and whatever you think of him, and whatever you think of his impact, you are probably right. And maybe even wrong depending on how strongly you feel about it. Because he has given everybody good reason to have every possible opinion of him.

It all comes down to whether you are putting your emphasis on “the eye test” or the “analytics.”

It is perfectly fair — and correct — to say that his impact has been underwhelming, and maybe even disappointing.

When he arrived in Pittsburgh he was coming off a 100-point, Norris Trophy-winning season. He is the elite offensive defenseman of his era — and one of the best ever — and still at an age where he should still have a few big years ahead of him. Was it reasonable to expect another Norris Trophy and another 100-point season? Absolutely not. But there was pretty good reason to expect that he could (and maybe even should) be one of the top-scoring defensemen in the league, play at least something close to a Norris caliber level and help fix an inconsistent and overall disappointing power play unit that played a big role in the Penguins missing the playoffs a year ago.

He has not played at that level. Honestly, not even really close to it.

He is not even in the fringes of Norris Trophy discussion, the power play has somehow managed to get worse and he even saw himself get demoted from the top-unit down to the second-unit. That’s not what anybody wanted. That’s not what anybody expected. And I do think he has a big contributor to the decline of the power play. Everybody has been a contributor to that, but especially Karlsson.

He has also had some of those “what the hell?” moments where you wonder what exactly he is thinking, both with the puck and without it.

But you also can’t ignore the overall on-ice numbers, which have generally been very good.

No, he isn’t going to score 100 points this season.

No, he isn’t going to win the Norris Trophy again.

But he is still on pace for over 10 goals and 60 points this season. That is still among the NHL’s elite at the position. Only 12 defenders are on pace for those numbers this season. Only 11 defenders hit those numbers a year ago. Only seven did it the year before that.

That level of production is among the top-five percent of his all defensemen in the NHL at a given time. There’s a lot to be said for that. There’s also a lot to be said for the fact that — objectively speaking — the Penguins are significantly out-shooting, out-chancing, and yes ... out-scoring their opponents when he is on the ice. That does matter. It is important. If a player is truly a drain or not producing it should be showing up somewhere objectively.

But, It’s probably not as productive as it could be. The defensive lapses also count. So do the games like Sunday where he seems to be out to lunch at times.

It has all contributed to a frustrating season where he has flashed moments of brilliance, moments of disappointment, and given everybody reason to hold all of the opinions that are out there about him and his play.

Overall, this is still the one offseason addition I am not down on, and I do not fault Kyle Dubas or the front office for making it or swinging for the fences with it. Even if it has not been what we (or they) expected.

They traded almost nothing of value (only the first-round pick holds any real long-term value, and I’m fine with that) and dumped almost all of their bad contracts. I can’t get past the fact it actually lowered their salary cap number for the season. That is still staggering to think about. It is why I do not care that he’s taking up $10 million in cap space because if they hadn’t made the trade Jan Rutta, Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry and Casey DeSmith would have been taking up over $14.1 million in salary cap space this season.

You wouldn’t be better with that.

You would be worse. Significantly, significantly worse.

Yeah, maybe you could have traded each of them individually in smaller salary dump trades, but even then you are still not getting better or improving your salary cap situation as much.

Even if you want to argue that his salary cap number can be a problem in a couple of years, it is much easier to dump one bad contract than it is to dump four of them.

I also still think there is a chance he still bounces back at some point in the future and brings more consistency and the type game-changing play to the Penguins that was expected. He’s too good, has too much of a track record and should not be at an age where his play falls off. Keep in mind he is still a couple of years younger than, say, Kris Letang.

Speaking of Letang, a lot the discourse around Karlsson this season is very similar to what we have spent more than a decade arguing about with Letang.

There is still a non-zero segment of the Penguins fan base that does not fully appreciate Letang because they see the giveaway, they see the turnover, they see him get beat defensively because he is trying to make a play in the offensive zone. It does happen. Sometimes it is costly. But that style of play is also what makes him great, what makes him impactful, and the positive plays generally outnumber (significantly so) the negative plays. Players like Letang and Karlsson play the most minutes, have the puck on their sticks the most, and take the most chances (mostly because they can). That results in a lot of impactful plays. It also increases the chances of a bad play.

In the end, Karlsson’s addition has made the Penguins better in a lot of ways (this year’s salary cap situation, giving them a legitimately productive top-pairing defenseman).

It just has not made them as good as we all hoped he would (the power play, the team still struggling to make the playoffs and not looking like a contender). That is a disappointment.

Both statements can be true at the same time. Both statements — I think — are true.

It all adds up to a frustrating season.

Which is also very fitting for the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins.