What Makes Erik Karlsson the NHL's Best Defenceman

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What Makes Erik Karlsson the NHL's Best Defenceman
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

At the halfway point of the 2015-16 NHL season, Erik Karlsson stands alone in leading both all NHL defenceman and all Ottawa Senators skaters in points. He’s the clear front-runner to win the Norris Trophy for a third time as the league’s best rearguard.

Despite his successes, Karlsson is dogged by a reputation for weak defensive play. He’s seen as lacking in size and strength, his work ethic in the defensive zone has been called out and his willingness to play aggressive hockey with the puck is often looked upon with suspicion. Is he really deserving of the plaudits he’s received?

Any conversation must start with Karlsson’s unique offensive gifts, gifts he has demonstrated time and again. It's a rare thing indeed to see an NHL defenceman take the puck in the defensive zone, charge up the ice and then start and finish a give-and-go play.

He has 42 points in just 40 games this season, which ranks fourth among all NHL players. Going over the plays in which he picked up a point reveals a combination of the obviously exciting and the deceptively ordinary.

Karlsson's offensive production in 2015-16
Goals Points 5v5 G/50 5v5 PTS/60
Karlsson 9 42 0.55 1.72
NHL Rank (D) T-6th 1 4 1

BehindtheNet.ca/NHL.com

Much of Karlsson’s value comes from things with only a lose association to point totals. He’s well-known as one of the best passers in the game, and that quality has extreme value whenever the Senators exit the defensive zone. However, just four of his 33 assists this season were the result of clean outlet passes.

That's a point worth highlighting. A clean outlet pass has a lot of value, even if many of its practitioners fail to pick up a point on those plays. It gets the puck out of the defensive zone on the first try, avoiding a costly turnover or a desperation clear which allows the opposition to regroup and attack again immediately. It supports the attack, too; in many cases a good outlet pass is the "third" assist on a goal. 

That's not to say that Karlsson is hurting for points. He scores on brilliantly creative plays, and he scores in deceptively mundane ways, too. The latter are of special interest, because any player who can make scoring look mechanical is indeed impressive. 

Consider this dull-looking second assist on a Kyle Turris goal against Philadelphia:

There’s nothing special about that. The puck comes to Karlsson, who passes off to Bobby Ryan. Ryan tries to pass the puck down low but that pass is intercepted; the puck then bounces fortunately to Turris who puts it home.

The power play hinges on Karlsson here, and the Flyers have an incredible amount of respect for him. He could shoot the puck, but Philadelphia has arrayed all four of its skaters in virtually a straight line to prevent that; if we look at the line of his shot any of the four could block it. That formation gives Karlsson three logical passing options; two to the right of Philadelphia’s goalie and Ryan to the left.

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live

Karlsson isn’t predictable at the top of the zone. He has seven power-play points on the year going with the shot; three of them beat the goalie, and four others either created a tempting rebound or were redirected en route. The rest of his scoring on the man advantage has come from distributing to the side most likely to put a goal in.

All this is uncontroversial. More hotly debated is Karlsson’s work without the puck. No less an authority than the Hockey News wrote that he “struggles with defensive zone coverage at times.” Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun was decidedly more scathing last season, calling Karlsson’s attitude “laissez-faire” and suggesting he’d be well-served by “a slap in the back of the head.”

Those are serious complaints, one from an industry standby and the other from a local commentator. Both, however, miss the mark.

Part of the problem is the way we tend to think about defensive hockey. A big defenceman who can break up the opposition cycle is often universally recognized as a quality defensive player, while a fast defenceman who prevents the opposition from even gaining the defensive zone gets much less credit. Given a choice, the latter is obviously preferable.

Ottawa's 5-on-5 shots for/against in 2015-16
Situation SF/60 SA/60
With Karlsson 29.2 31.1
Without Karlsson 25.3 34.8
Difference -3.9 +3.7

behindthenet.ca

This is why an analysis based on on-ice shot metrics is so valuable. The things Karlsson does have value, both offensively and defensively, and are reflected in how his team’s even-strength shot rates change when he’s on and off the ice. With Karlsson out there, not only does Ottawa average four more shots per hour, it also surrenders nearly four fewer.

Consider some examples from a recent game against St. Louis.

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live
Karlsson isolates his man and forces a turnover

In the image above, Ottawa was playing a 1-3-1 system through the neutral zone with a single forechecker, three men lined up across the ice and a fifth behind them as a safety net. Though the Blues were technically attacking three-on-three, Karlsson used his formidable speed to isolate the St. Louis puck-carrier; the result was a neutral-zone turnover for the Blues rather than a shift spent in the Sens’ zone.

Sometimes the play can even be broken up in the offensive zone.

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live
Karlsson pinches, stealing the puck

In this example, Mark Stone had tried to block the passing lane for a Blues defenceman but was a moment late, and the puck made its way to Robby Fabbri at the point. Or rather, it would have, except that Karlsson pinched aggressively, preventing a rush by the Blues before it even started. The end result was a thwarted breakout and a good scoring chance for Karlsson.

Karlsson holds his own in the defensive zone, too, and is particularly adept at intercepting passes:

Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live
Karlsson taking away a passing lane on the penalty kill
Screen grab via NHL Game Center Live
Karlsson offers and then takes away a passing lane while defending a two-on-one rush

The first image is from the penalty kill. Karlsson was aware of the Blues attacker moving to the back door and knocked the puck away as it was passed across. The second is from a two-on-one rush by St. Louis in which Karlsson offered a slight passing lane before kicking his skate out to knock the puck away.

The truth is that while Karlsson isn’t a traditional defensive specialist, neither is he a one-way player. It’s his ability to collect points that really separates him from the NHL pack, but to focus exclusively on that quality is to miss out on all the other attributes which make him such a great player.

Karlsson, the best defenceman in the league this season, is at the forefront of a change in his position. Increasingly, defencemen are expected to be mobile, capable with the puck and able both to support the attack and to keep the opposition from even entering the defensive zone. These are the qualities which make a defenceman elite; increasingly, they’re also the qualities necessary even just for continued NHL employment.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and Behind the Net.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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