Despite no fewer than four future Hockey Hall of Famers playing prominent roles (Karlsson, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang), the Penguins sit in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division and are four points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Karlsson, a lightning rod throughout his career, is pretty low on Pittsburgh’s list of problems. He’s not picking up points like he did last season, which was to be expected. The fact is, however, that few defenders can hold a candle to Karlsson in terms of attacking power. The Penguins are averaging 1.66 expected goals per 20 minutes in all situations where Karlsson is on the ice, leading all NHL defensemen.
Some of Karlsson’s individual numbers are down compared to his Norris Trophy-winning season with the San Jose Sharks, but that’s partly because he has more talented teammates who can also handle the responsibility. (Karlsson’s 1.86 slot passes per 20, for example, ranks first among 240 defensemen who played at least 100 minutes.)
It goes without saying that Karlsson’s swashbuckling style leads to occasional mishaps with the puck. Opponents have scored 10 goals within 10 seconds of a Karlsson turnover this season, a number that leads the NHL. However, with Karlsson on the ice, the Penguins outscored their opponents 47-28 (33-17 at 5-on-5), so the good outweighed the bad in that regard.
The biggest concern in Pittsburgh has been the power play, which recently endured the franchise’s worst 13-game losing streak (0-for-37 if you include the game before the losing streak began).
Karlsson is the quarterback of the top unit, which also includes Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel and a rotating fifth member. The version with the injured Bryan Rust averaged 0.37 expected goals per two minutes – fifth-best of 46 power play units that played at least 20 minutes together. The group with Reilly Smith takes 11th place. The Penguins’ 4-for-8 performance in their last two games suggests their power play woes may soon be overcome.
Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas likely spoke on behalf of many observers earlier this week when he said, “Nobody really wants to hear about the underlying things about the even-strength game or even the power play. They want to see the execution on the ice.”
Until then, the truth is there. However, the Penguins should feel encouraged by what they saw from Karlsson.
“I think Erik has been a great addition to the discussion about how we can evolve and change,” Dubas told reporters. “He doesn’t really accept the status quo in his own game or others (in terms of the way we should do things).
“Some players are easily intimidated, and rightly so, by the presence and pedigree of our people who have won (multiple) championships here. Erik comes in and is very respectful, full of energy, very sociable and curious, but he will also push. Especially when we’re in the position we’re in right now, you need that.”
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