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Erik Karlsson might not exactly be your glass of Absolut.
You might still cling to the idea that he’s a liability defensively, because of that one Ottawa Senators game you saw that one time where he blew a coverage. Or you might have a gag reflex whenever you see offensive defensemen winning the Norris.
But even the most ardent Karlsson basher – and we have one at Puck Daddy – has to admit that this is a special, special offensive talent. His 82 points in 82 games last season was the best scoring season for a defenseman this millennium and the highest point total for a defenseman in 21 years.
(Alas, this wasn’t enough to overcome the Canadian media coronation of Drew Doughty for the Norris, which was scheduled before the season even started.)
He has 385 points in 479 NHL games. In the top 10 scoring seasons for active NHL defenseman, Karlsson has the first, second, fifth and ninth highest.
Karlsson is a generational talent. If you’re a hockey fan, you want to see where this career ends up, free of massive decline, injury or … a coach’s meddling.
Which brings us to Guy Boucher.
The Senators hired Boucher – the fourth coach Karlsson has played for in Ottawa – to do three things: Get them back to the playoffs, figure out why their power play sucks and give the team some semblance of defensive structure, as the Senators gave up an unforgivable 32.8 shots per game, most in the NHL last season.
What we know about Boucher is what we saw in his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and SC Bern in Switzerland, and we obviously saw more of the former than the latter.
Boucher was infamous for playing a 1-3-1 trap in Tampa, but he’s not exactly Jacques Lemaire when it comes to adherence to that system. Basically, he’s a coach that relies on aggressive puck pursuit and then coverage for those forecheckers. When it works, his teams can frustrate the hell out of you, to the point where some teams simply stop playing.
When it doesn’t, you get a parade of odd-man rushes like the Lightning used to give up. But that might have had more to do with the player buy-in than the system.
What you don’t get, traditionally, is a lot of scoring from his defensemen. In parts of six seasons with the Lightning and Bern, Boucher only had one defenseman crack 35 points: Marc-Andre Gragnani in 2014-15 with Bern, with 37 points. Previously, the top point-getter on defense was Brett Clark with 31 in his first season in Tampa. Marc-Andre Bergeron had 24 points in the following season, and then Matt Carle had 22.
In Jon Cooper’s first season after Boucher was fired, Carle had 31 points and Victor Hedman, who never saw his potential under Boucher, had 55 points.
The Senators are the Erik Karlsson Show. Boucher has shown that generating a ton of offense from the back end isn’t at the forefront of his system.
How is this going to work out?
Boucher said that he doesn’t intend to come to Ottawa and drain the team’s offense for the sake of defense.
“I wasn’t called in to change this team 180 degrees and all of a sudden make it a defensive team. My teams are known to have structure defensively, and absolutely we want to bring that,” he told the Ottawa Sun. “But my strength is offence and that’s why I’m here. My top guys are always at the top in terms of points.”
OK, so he’s an offensive guy, known for a defensive system. Another hallmark of Karlsson’s game is his ice time, as he’s averaged over 27 minutes per game for the last four seasons, and nearly 29 minutes (28:58) last season, which not coincidentally produced his highest career point total.
Will Boucher rein that in?
“I’d rather have players often on the ice, rather than long, because then you’re able to have a high pace and maintain that high pace. Will he be often on the ice? Of course. Will he be sometimes longer? Well, it depends. You can have a power play where you’ve been in the zone for a minutes and a half. You’re not going to ask the player in the middle of an ozone power play to just take off and come back to the bench, absolutely not,” said Boucher, via Silver Sevens.
“He’s a top player, so he gets top minutes. But like everybody else, we definitely want to manage it, but it’s not about Erik, we want to manage all of our players in the same way. Because we want high pace. We’re a high pace team.”
Where Boucher may help Karlsson is on the power play, where he had 26 points but only scored one goal with the man advantage last season.
“You’ve got a bazooka in your hand. You don’t want to keep him on the bench and go in there with a pistol. I’ll go for the bazooka a little longer. He knows, like all the other players, that I try to put people in their strengths and use them in their strengths,” said Boucher.
(Of course, Karlsson was already playing an average of 4:39 per game on the power play. Not sure if the bazooka was all that holstered under Dave Cameron.)
In fairness to Boucher, we won’t really know how his system will impact Karlsson until (a) we see it in the regular season, and what it looks like for Ottawa and (b) because Boucher has never had a defenseman in his prime with the abilities of Karlsson.
But isn’t there some concern his point totals could be impacted?
We asked the man himself.
“I play this game to win games, not to score goals,” said Karlsson, during the World Cup of Hockey. “I just hope we win games. Then I don’t really care that much. I’ll be happy to do whatever I have to do for our team to get in to the playoffs, getting a legitimate chance of going deeper than just one round. Hopefully he can bring that to our team.”
So, at the start of the season, Karlsson sounds like he’ll buy what Guy is selling, no matter the impact.
“If it starts with me doing something different … whatever I have to do to get there, I don’t worry about that. If it’s what I have to do to win games, I’ll do it. If it’s not, I won’t,” he said.
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