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Karlsson: Should Be No Problem Coexisting With Letang



Erik Karlsson

There’s not much question that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be a better team with Erik Karlsson in their lineup.

Probably quite a bit better, actually.

There’s also not much question that, with Karlsson and Kris Letang, they have one of the better 1-2 punches among NHL defensemen, too.

But there is at least one question that conceivably could arise in the months ahead: Can Karlsson and Letang, both right-handers and alpha defensemen for most of their careers, coexist when there are only so many minutes in a game, so relatively little time to work on a No. 1 power play?

At this point, there is no indication that there will be any friction between the two. Then again, they’ve only been on the same team for a few days, and won’t share a locker room until sometime next month.

Karlsson was in a similar situation for most of his time in San Jose, where Brent Burns was his teammate before being traded to Carolina in 2022.

But while there were reports of tension between the two, Karlsson was adamant Wednesday that those were not accurate.

“I don’t think we had a strained relationship,” he said, while meeting with the Pittsburgh media at PPG Paints Arena. “We’re actually pretty good friends, personally. I just think that when you don’t do well as a team, collectively, things don’t tend to work out for anyone, and it didn’t for a long time. It’s just unfortunate that it played out that way.

“I don’t foresee it to be any issue whatsoever coming in here, where you have a lot of strong players who have been here for a long time and have had extreme success. I’m excited to be able to work alongside guys like that.”

Precisely who he will work alongside the most — that is, his defense partner — probably won’t be determined until training camp, but it’s safe to assume that it will be someone whose defensive style will allow Karlsson, 33, to take full advantage of his offensive talents.

Marcus Pettersson is an obvious candidate for that role, although Karlsson noted that while both are Swedish, they do not know each other.

“He’s a little bit younger than me, and I haven’t really crossed paths with him,” he said.

There will be some familiar faces at camp, however. They include former San Jose teammates Matt Nieto and Andreas Johnsson, long-ago junior teammate Lars Eller, Rickard Rakell, with whom he crossed paths at some national team camps, and Alex Nylander, whose father played on some Swedish teams of which Karlsson was a member.

“That makes me feel a little bit old, although I’m not,” Karlsson said, smiling.

Karlsson said he “found the joy of the game again” during the past season, when he earned his third Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.

“First off, I’ve been healthy for a longer period of time now,” he said. “I think that really showed and it made me feel a lot better about myself, in a lot of different ways. … I had a lot of fun playing hockey last year.”

That was reflected on the stat sheet, as Karlsson put up 25 goals and 76 assists in 82 games to become the sixth defenseman in NHL history and the first since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to reach triple-digits.

While Karlsson clearly is happy to have joined the Pittsburgh Penguins — his contract includes a no-movement clause, so he could have vetoed the trade — they were not his sole focus once he decided that he wanted to leave San Jose.

“I didn’t have a preferred destination, per se,” he said. “I didn’t give (the Sharks) a short list of ‘This is where I would like to go, and this is only it.’ ”

He added that “it came down to only a few teams that were possibly going to be able to do it, and Pittsburgh was one of them.”

Just how much of a difference-maker Karlsson can be in the next few years is impossible to predict. but he sounds confident that he will be a good complement to a core of talent that has earned three Stanley Cups.

“Obviously, I’ve played against Pittsburgh many a time and lost to them a few times when they went on to win the ultimate prize,” he said. “That’s something they know how to do here.”