OTTAWA — Erik Karlsson was seated a few booths over from Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins during NHL All-Star Game media day, which was a short enough distance to admire his hair.
"He has longer hair than me, for sure. Right now, at least. He has a good flow," said a similarly coiffed Karlson. "I'm thrilled to see someone else is doing that style."
Karlsson is the Ottawa Senators' 21-year-old defenseman. He's eclipsed his career high for points in just 51 games: Karlsson has 7 goals and 40 assists to lead NHL defensemen with 47 points. It could be argued he's become a star this season; if so, the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa has helped in that process. Fans around the League knew Erik Karlsson was talented. They probably didn't know he was hilarious.
"I guess local people know that he's a real funny guy, and a really well-liked guy in the room. For the national media to see how lighthearted he is, it's nice to see him get some recognition," said center Jason Spezza of the Senators.
Karlsson entertained viewers watching the NHL Fantasy Draft when he was taken ahead of his veteran teammate. "Spezza's pissed there," he said on TSN. "His black eye is getting even blacker."
When he held court at media day, the quips continued. Like when the questions turned to whether he's a snappy dresser.
"I try to be. I don't know if I am. I like clothes a lot. I try to be as good-looking as I can, and then I think it's up to you guys to decide if I am or I'm not. I would say I am. But I wouldn't trust that."
Does he consider himself a better dresser than fellow Swede and noted fashion plate Henrik Lundqvist?
"Probably not," said Karlsson. "He's the top of the hill. I see what he wears in the summers and I go buy it afterwards."
The All-Star Game is revealing more layers to Erik Karlsson at the same time it's bringing his team's accomplishments this season into focus.
The Senators entered the All-Star break with 60 points in 52 games, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Northeast Division. They are, perhaps, the most unexpected contender in the NHL: a team that bottomed out with 74 points last season, costing coach Cory Clouston his job and setting expectations for this season at "Fail for Nail" levels.
The great miscalculation about the Senators was two-fold. First was the underestimation of how their solid young talent — Karlsson, Colin Greening and the like — would reinvigorate their older stars.
"The young guys are bringing energy to the rink," said captain Daniel Alfredsson.
That energy has pushed Alfredsson to 17 goals and 21 assists in 46 games, playing the kind of hockey that defies his age (39).
"You always think you can better. You can. I've had a lot of ups and downs in my career," he said. "I know when I'm playing good, I can be one of the best in the League. When I'm not, I'm average."
Second was the impact of Paul MacLean as head coach, and a Jack Adams candidate. The former Detroit Red Wings assistant was given his first NHL head job after over 15 years as an assistant. It was expected MacLean would lend some of the Wings' gravitas to the Sens' dressing room. It was unexpected that he'd help create a jovial atmosphere that's loosened up the players.
"He's brought accountability and a good system, and he's let us have fun, too," said Spezza of MacLean. "We're a real hard-working team. He makes sure everyone knows where they stand on the team, but he allows us to have fun, too. He's played the game; he coach's like a coach but he thinks like a player, too."
Seriously, it's enough to make Spezza giggle:
Spezza tallied 57 points in each of the last two seasons (in 60 and 62 games). He's on a similar pace this season, but hasn't missed a game yet for the Senators.
Fans voted Spezza, Alfredsson, Karlsson and Milan Michalek (23 goals in 47 games) into the All-Star Game. This weekend has placed them, and their franchise, in the spotlight. It's on Spezza's charisma. It's on Karlsson's talent. It's on Alfredsson hearing the crowd chant his name like his number's being retired.
It's a moment for the hockey world to recognize Ottawa as a hockey city, and that the Ottawa Senators have put together a hell of a run from an underrated group.
"Maybe for the weekend," Spezza said. "You want attention for winning hockey games, and not for any other reason. If we continue to win we'll get more attention, but I'll be honest: As a group, we don't feel like we've accomplished anything. We've been so short-sighted all year. It's so cliché, but every game seems like the most important game for us.
"We're not going to blow teams out. We're not going to take anyone for granted."
Karlsson said it all ties back to the Senators' unpretentious, hard-working style.
"I think this event is about getting to know the players, seeing as we are normal persons. In the end, we're not that much more special than anyone else," he said.
Even if some young Swedish defensemen are funnier than others.
"I'm not that funny," said Karlsson. "I don't know about that. Maybe you think I'm funny. I laugh at my own jokes sometimes."