CRANBERRY — Erik Karlsson was the prized get on the NHL trade market last summer. One by one, teams that had visions of adding the Norris Trophy winner who can skate with the elegance of the Russians and the speed of the wind dropped out until two remained. And then one, as the Pittsburgh Penguins completed a complicated and brilliant trade in which they shed multiple unwanted contracts without giving a king’s ransom to acquire one of the best defensemen in the game.
On Aug. 6, 2023, the trade went down. Karlsson was a Penguin.
However, it’s been a slow, if not frustrating, integration for Karlsson into the well-established Penguins lineup. In case you haven’t noticed, the Penguins already had star players in the middle of their lineup who like to play with the puck. For nearly two decades, the primary scheme has been to get the puck to Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and watch the magic unfold.
Crosby, Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang have played together for the entirety of their NHL careers and are the longest-serving trio in North American sports history at 18 years and counting.
As Karlsson quipped earlier this season, “I could be here for five years and not have the chemistry they have.”
The even-strength statistics for Karlsson are not bad, but they are far from his jaw-dropping 100-point season with the San Jose Sharks of one year ago. The blazing Swedish d-man has 37 points, including seven goals in 49 games. He’s also a healthy plus-10.
Yet no one has felt quite satisfied.
Of course, there are the power play problems. The man advantage has alternated from baby steps forward to abysmal, usually resting on the latter as they’ve fallen to 3oth in the NHL. Last week, coach Mike Sullivan finally pulled the rip chord and split his star-studded power play, dropping Malkin and Karlsson together on the second unit (PP2) while elevating Letang with Crosby to form PP1.
No one groused, at least publicly, but there has been a change in Karlsson’s game.
It seems he’s tossed off the constraints that he’s been playing with and began playing the aggressive puck-control game for which he’s known. Beginning in Minnesota, but especially in Winnipeg, Karlsson raced from the defensive zone with the puck, streaming by would-be defenders like a prairie breeze to establish controlled zone entries.
Karlsson went even further than simply establishing zone control, too. More than at any point this season, Karlsson took the puck into the low zone, playing like a forward.
It’s a feature, not a flaw in Karlsson’s game, and one to which the Penguins had not yet been treated.
For his part, Karlsson punted following the 2-1 loss in Winnipeg when Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked him if that was his best game yet with the Penguins.
He shrugged and chose to focus on the team’s uneven performance without so much as grazing the initial query.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now also put the question to coach Mike Sullivan, who agreed that Karlsson took a step forward — our multiple strides, to be literal — and was controlling play more than he had previously with the Penguins.
“I would agree (that Karlsson played more with the puck over the weekend). And I think that’s when he’s at his best,” said Sullivan. “When he’s skating, acting on his instincts both with and without the puck, I think that’s when Erik is at his best. That’s something that we try to encourage him (to do) — to use his feet more and his instincts and trust his instincts. You know, he has to understand — I think he’s getting more comfortable with how we’re trying to play, (and) some of the details.”
In a season in which the Penguins are searching for difference-makers beyond Crosby and his constant linemate Jake Guentzel, Karlsson’s emergence can’t happen soon enough.
The Penguins season is teetering after the pair of losses over the weekend. The team no longer controls its fate in the playoff race and likely needs to win at least three of the four games they have in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers if they hope to make the playoffs.
With the trade deadline and a second straight early offseason looming, help from anywhere will be welcome. Perhaps Karlsson was simply tired of waiting, or perhaps he was comfortable enough to let it rip. Or, most likely, the situation demands the Penguins get the best from their best players, and he’s probably their second-best player.
Regardless, Karlsson asserted himself, and it was immediately noticeable.
“I think he’s getting better with every game plays. I think he’s getting better with every day that he’s here, just getting a little bit more comfortable,” said Sullivan. “There’s another level to his game that we haven’t gotten yet. And I think Erik would agree with that. That’s something that we’re working towards … And I think when that happens, and I believe it will, I think he’s a guy that’s a difference-maker.”