June 3, 2023

After three disappointing seasons in teal, Erik Karlsson is off to the best start of his 14-year career, statistically. Through the first 11 games, the elite defenseman has six goals and five assists for 11 points. Not only is he the most productive Shark, but he’s also been by far the most clutch, with three of those goals being game-winners in each of his team’s wins.

Even more encouraging, several elements of Karlsson’s game illustrate that his start is no fluke, involving the same attributes that made him successful in Ottawa. Moreover, his early season production substantiates my preseason statement that he will thrive under the new coaching staff’s on-ice philosophy. Bearing that in mind, here are some observations on what’s contributing to his early season success.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Karlsson has a precision laser for a shot that he hasn’t used as much during his Sharks’ tenure. However, this season, he’s been firing the puck early and often en route to his league-leading six goals among NHL defensemen. His shoot-first mentality and elite playmaking ability are what made him such a multi-dimensional force to begin with.

That same approach is coming back with a vengeance thus far in 2022-23, forcing defenses to respect his shot and ability to dish the puck simultaneously. This causes defenses to hesitate at taking the passing or shooting lane, allowing his generational ability to exploit that split-second delay via pass or shot. His second goal bullseye on the power play against the Tampa Bay Lightning displayed that very circumstance.

Notice Erik Cernak’s hesitation to cover the middle as Karlsson takes the ice given to him and rips a shot top corner. It’s very subtle, but that’s all he needs to take advantage. It’s that same aggressive shot that was lacking in his prior three seasons in teal.

Non-coincidentally, it was also my most adamant disposition with the previous coaching staff‘s persistent misuse of EK65’s natural ability. The past three seasons saw Karlsson adopt a pass-first or pass-shot mentality contrary to his natural instincts. That perspective has disappeared this season, making every time he touches the puck in the offensive zone a dangerous opportunity.

New Coaching Staff, New Karlsson

As I eluded to in preseason, David Quinn’s philosophy of individual creativity plays directly into Karlsson’s strengths. Quinn’s coaching methods have seemingly brought the best out of No. 65 the same way it brought the best out of Mika Zibanejad with the New York Rangers. The only difference being Erik Karlsson was, of course, priorly an established elite player with the Ottawa Senators. That said, Quinn’s promotion of individual creativity permits Karlsson to be Karlsson again, utilizing his elite vision and playmaking ability to create opportunities from virtually nothing.

Related: Sharks’ Erik Karlsson Begins a Bounce-Back Season

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In correlation, one of the most glaring differences between this coaching staff and the last is how Quinn’s team aggressively pinches at the blue line. As simple as it may seem, it’s something we never saw San Jose do in the offensive zone the past three seasons. Noticing this trend even in the preseason was an eye-opener of what it could mean for reviving Karlsson’s natural offensive prowess. With each game, fans have seen the Sharks gradually grow into a new system the same way Karlsson has come back into his own. If these trends continue, it could lead to more wins very soon with their early season MVP leading the charge.

Speed, Hands, and Vision In One Motion

As one of the rare players with hands quick enough to match his blazing speed, Karlsson also processes the game at an equally rapid rate. Since 2018-19, fans would see him display flashes of one of these traits in a single play, but rarely all three.

Erik Karlsson San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When Erik Karlsson is at his best, he’s simultaneously utilizing all three dimensions of his hands, vision, and skating ability at each touch of the puck. That’s precisely what the generational defenseman is doing so far this season while being the Sharks’ main driver of the play at both ends of the ice. The first 11 games have seen a deja vu appearance of his Norris Trophy-winning form. Only time will tell if he can maintain this level for a full season for the first time in a Sharks’ uniform. But so far he looks as unstoppable as he ever was.

Can Erik Karlsson Revive The Sharks’ Season?

Karlsson’s been known to take a team on his back before. He’s done it so far this home stand with the most minimal support from his team’s top forwards. The elite defenseman’s three game-winning goals and consistent early-season performance attest that he’s still capable of being that difference-maker.

Will Karlsson’s play and respectable production from the team’s bottom forwards change this team’s dynamic once Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier emerge from their cold streaks? If hockey has taught us anything it’s never to count a team out too early. If their top forwards find their groove soon and Karlsson can continue his torrid pace, it makes for what could be an interesting season in teal.

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