The sample size is small, just nine games, but the Pittsburgh Penguins figure that’s enough time to assess what Erik Karlsson can give them.
“He is the player we thought we were getting,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
Well, to some extent, anyway.
Karlsson’s offensive output, two goals and four assists, isn’t bad, but that’s nowhere near the pace that would be required for him to match the 101 points he put up in San Jose last season, when he earned his third Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.
While Sullivan isn’t necessarily counting on Karlsson to hit triple-digits again, let alone win a fourth Norris, he seems adamant that Karlsson can have more of an impact than he has so far.
“I think there’s another level to his game,” Sullivan said. “We’re going through a little bit of a feeling-out process, but (Karlsson) is a guy who can drive offense. He can drive offense 5-on-5. He can drive offense on the power play. That’s what we envisioned when we acquired him.
“We’re working through a process here to try to capture his very best game. … We all have seen elements of his ability to drive offense. We’re hoping we’ll get a little more consistency with that throughout the course of a 60-minute hockey game, but he’s a guy we’re excited about having and we have to figure out how to maximize his ability level.”
Whether, let alone when, Karlsson will be able to get there is impossible to predict. The Pittsburgh Penguins, understandably, would like it to happen Saturday night when they visit San Jose, where Karlsson labored for five seasons before the Sharks traded him here this summer.
“It’s going to be nice to be back in San Jose,” Karlsson said. “It’s going to be nice to see a lot of familiar faces and meet a lot of people that I haven’t seen in a while. … It’s also nice that it’s early in the season. So we kind of can get it over with a little bit and move forward. But I’ve got a lot of good memories there, and I’m hoping to create some more good memories in that rink.”
The Penguins surely could use them, considering that they are 3-6 and stuck in last place in the Eastern Conference.
More than a few factors have contributed to their disappointing record, including a power play that ranks 22nd in the NHL, with a conversion rate of 14.8 percent.
Karlsson replaced Kris Letang on the left point of the No. 1 unit this season, and while the Penguins’ performance with the man-advantage has been a major disappointment, Sidney Crosby believes Karlsson’s skills set allows him to do some of his best work when they have the extra man.
“The power play, he’s obviously got time and space to do what he’s best at, and that’s just to create space for guys around him, create plays,” he said. “He can shoot the puck. He showed that last game. He’s got a big shot. He skates the puck out of trouble. He can carry it end-to-end. … He’s got a lot of strengths. Probably on the power play is when it’s on display the most.”
A power play that produces to expectations could help the Pittsburgh Penguins begin to climb through the standings. And even though almost no one predicted they would have such a miserable record in October, Karlsson believes they’re capable of pulling out of their 1-5 nosedive.
“We’re not hanging heads in here,” he said. “We’ve played some really good hockey. We also know that we haven’t played some of the best that we have (to give). I don’t think we have to change very much. I think we have to dial in a few (things) and keep going, try to get accustomed with each other, as much as we can.
“Even though our record is what it is, I still feel like we’re a good hockey team, and I feel like we believe we’re a good hockey team in here. We’re going to take it game-by-game and try make it one (victory) in a row, then keep it one in a row and moving forward like that. We have to start somewhere. Obviously, getting a win, no matter how we get it, would be nice.”
Especially if they can get it in the building that was Karlsson’s home for the past five seasons.