PITTSBURGH — At another time, alarm bells would have been ringing all around the Canadian Tire Centre.
The Ottawa Senators’ chosen one left the practice ice early Friday morning, on the eve of the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, after skating for only 20 minutes.
“Just trying new skates on,” Senators captain Erik Karlsson said, long after the rest of his Ottawa Senators teammates had packed up their equipment and left the dressing room for the charter flight to Pittsburgh and the series opener Saturday. “That was the plan all along. So, nothing to read into that.”
Given Karlsson’s injury history in the past month, you might think that his quick exit from the workout would be cause for deep concern.
The two-time Norris Trophy winner as top regular-season defenceman has been playing through two hairline fractures in his left foot.
He didn’t play in the third period of Game 4 of the second round against the New York Rangers. After returning to the lineup and helping finish off the Rangers with victories in games 5 and 6, he was limping as he went through post-series interviews.
This, however, is Karlsson, who hopes to celebrate his 27th birthday on May 30 by leading the club into the Stanley Cup final for only the second time in franchise history.
The normal standards about everything, including injury recovery, don’t apply.
Despite the wear and tear on his foot, first injured in the final weeks of the regular season, he has been an offensive and defensive standout in series victories over Boston and New York.
“Athletically, Erik is one of the most talented players I have ever seen,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “But he has taken his game to another level. He feels he has to do that for us to win.”
From the flying saucer Hail Mary pass to Mike Hoffman in Game 3 against Boston to the brilliant end-to-end give-and-go rush that provided the cushion in the clinching Game 6 against the Rangers, the signature offensive moments are everywhere.
Karlsson has been on the ice for every one of the Senators’ eight game-winning goals in the first- and second-round victories. All told, he has two goals and 11 assists, tied for sixth in post-season scoring overall and leading all defencemen.
For all that, it’s his command and commitment inside his own blue-line that has raised the most eyebrows.
Consider the final minutes against New York, with Ottawa nursing a tender 3-2 lead: Karlsson’s game ended with a 2:30 shift, a 53-second break, a 1:42 shift, a 57-second break and a final shift of 2:15. That’s on the ice for 6:27 of the final 8:17.
“You’re always tired, but everybody does what they have to do to help the team win, and I did my part,” Karlsson said of the end of the series. “Whether I played any more than anyone else, I don’t think that had anything to do with why we won the game.”
Sure. We’re not buying it. Karlsson can try to be as humble as he wants, but his teammates know better.
“When you’re that hard to play against defensively and you still have that offensive weapon, the sky is the limit for him now,” said winger Clarke MacArthur. “I think that’s what the world is seeing now, as we get to the last four teams now.
“He has bought into winning the Stanley Cup. That last game against the Rangers, he’s plus four (plus/minus), he’s taking hits, he’s making plays. In my mind, he’s the most outstanding guy in the playoffs, my pick for the Norris (Trophy). I’ve seen what he has done in other years, but what he has done this year, it’s not even comparable.”
All of the above has him among the front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, along with Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
Asked Friday about whether he has heard the Conn Smythe talk, Karlsson deflected it away.
“No, I haven’t,” he said. “I don’t think it really matters. It’s just another thing for people who are watching the game to talk about.”
In the eyes of Hall of Fame defenceman Denis Potvin, Karlsson is the hands-down leader in Conn Smythe discussions.
Potvin won three Norris trophies himself and led the New York Islanders to four Stanley Cup titles.
Like Karlsson now, he was often compared to Bobby Orr. Potvin also sees more coming from Karlsson.
“He’s not even there yet,” said Potvin, who serves as a colour analyst for the Florida Panthers and was in that position with the Senators when Karlsson broke into the NHL.
“He’s going to get even better. I never like to make comparisons, because I had to live with them all my life, but he’s as explosive as any player who has ever played.”
THE BEGINNING: There’s a temptation in some quarters to suggest that Karlsson came out of nowhere, that the Senators saw something in the supremely talented but skinny kid from Landsbro, Sweden, that nobody else in the hockey world saw.
That’s not quite right.
Karlsson was on Sweden’s world under-18 squad, playing in all the high-profile tournaments.
“He wasn’t playing in the backwoods, where it was an outdoor rink,” said a laughing Dorion, who served as the club’s chief amateur scout at the 2008 entry draft when Karlsson was selected.
“Every team saw him. He played in (major tournaments) in February and April. Every team that had five scouts would have seen him there, so he was not ‘discovered’ by anyone.”
Dorion credits the club’s European scouts — Anders Forsberg, Vaclav Burda and Mikko Ruutu — for first selling Karlsson to Dorion.
“He just got better and better,” said Dorion. “He just elevated his game to another level that year, and that’s where we knew he would be a first-round consideration.”
The Senators owned the 18th overall selection at the entry draft, which was held in Ottawa.
In a draft loaded with high-end defencemen, the Senators were concerned that Karlsson wouldn’t be around when their turn came.
Then-Senators general manager Bryan Murray made a move, swapping picks with Nashville (and giving the Predators a third-round selection) to move up to the 15th spot.
Dorion is fond of repeating the draft-table conversation with Murray, who had previously recognized that his scouting staff was extremely high on Karlsson.
“Bryan asked, ‘Who do you want to take?’ ”
Dorion responded, “The little Swede.”
Murray, adopting his best sarcasm mode, then dropped the one-liner.
“You want me to take the 5-10 ½, 157-pound defenceman? Are you sure you want to work for me?”
When Karlsson appeared on stage, the hometown fans weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He was full of flair and confidence, but it also looked like the mere suggestion of a bodycheck might knock him down.
“I have a picture in my office of him and he looks like a 12-year-old boy,” said Dorion, laughing again.
It’s shocking to look back and see the selections that came before him.
Steven Stamkos, who went first overall to Tampa Bay, is the only 2008 selection to have outscored him.
A six-pack of defencemen — Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers and somebody named Colten Teubert — were chosen before Karlsson. Teubert played 24 games in the NHL with Edmonton, registering one assist. He has spent the past few seasons in Germany, skating with the Nuermberg Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers during the 2016-17 season.
Nashville used its 18th selection to choose goaltender Chet Pickard, who never made it to the NHL. Ironically, he played with Teubert in Germany.
Looking back, Dorion says it’s easy to second guess what went down at the draft.
“I’ve scouted my whole life and it’s not easy to pick 17- and 18-year-olds,” he said. “Sometimes, teams might have certain needs, and that’s what they’re looking for. I think we had Erik seventh on our list that year. If everyone is smart, they all should have had him No. 1.”
THE GROWTH: It wasn’t always rays of sunshine for Karlsson and the Senators.
Like most talented teenagers, he had to grow into his body and adapt his skill against well-established NHL players.
In his rookie season of 2009-10, he spent a month with Binghamton of the American Hockey League.
His numbers gradually improved and he won his first Norris Trophy in 2012 on the strength of scoring 19 goals and 59 assists in 81 games.
After Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke sliced the back of his leg in 2013 and he suffered a career-threatening Achilles injury, Karlsson had difficulty pivoting, particularly to his right. He was often exposed in his own end and struggled against the Penguins in the playoffs.
He rebounded, winning his second Norris in 2015, with 21 goals and 45 assists, cementing his status as the game’s best offensive defenceman.
At the same time, though, he endured his share of frustrations in his first year as captain. He often sacrificed defence in the name of offence. He also didn’t always handle media criticism of his play well.
“I used to see the frustration, getting mad at people when things weren’t going well,” said Potvin. “He took things personally. You can’t blame the media, you can’t blame your defence partner or the centre.”
Karlsson had his share of clashes with coaches, who sought to improve his defensive game.
“He can play 30 minutes a game,” quipped former coach Paul MacLean, “as long as he doesn’t play 16 minutes for us and 14 minutes for them.”
Somehow, though, current boss Guy Boucher has found the secret. Karlsson has never been better than he is now, playing within Boucher’s strict defensive system.
Before hiring Boucher, Dorion said there were lengthy interview discussions on how best to enhance the star defenceman’s talents. Karlsson has accepted the rules.
“We know how we have to play in certain situations,” he said. “When things go wrong, if you put yourself in the right spots, it’s not disastrous.”
Dorion credits Daniel Alfredsson, who served as Senators captain for 13 seasons, with advising Karlsson on the finer points of being captain. Dion Phaneuf and MacArthur have also helped Karlsson with leadership in the room.
“He has just matured,” said Marc Methot, Karlsson’s defensive partner. “He’s not always trying to do it himself if we’re down a goal. He’s still able to do his Karlsson-esque plays and also set other guys up. He’s able to change the pace of the game and take control of the game. You almost forget how good he is because he makes it look so easy.”
You’ll get no argument from Potvin, who says Karlsson might have reached his current level years ago if not for the Achilles injury.
“He slides into areas before the puck gets there and he’s seeing the game like the greats,” he said. “That winning goal against the Rangers defines what he is, a 200-foot player.”
Only one other captain in Senators history has taken the club to the Stanley Cup final. Karlsson is almost in that same conversation now.
“When his career is done, there is going to be a great debate about who is the best Senator of all time,” said Dorion. “Will it be Alfredsson or Karlsson? Erik can decide that.”