Back to the Future With EK65

Rediscovering Karlsson's fundamentals

This article is mostly about two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, one of the best offensive defensemen in NHL history.

But it’s also about Rocky Thompson, a man who had zero points and 117 penalty minutes, most of them due to fighter majors, in a 25-game NHL career. One of the scariest men to play pro hockey in the late-90s and early 2000s, he also added 1919 PIMs in 566 AHL games.

Today Thompson is a newly-hired assistant coach for the San Jose Shark in charge of defensemen and the powerplay. To do a good job in that role, he’ll have to help Karlsson make the most of what he has left.

Despite his rough-and-tumble past, Thompson is an intelligent man who’s one of the most analytics-savvy pro hockey coaches in North America. Friend of the newsletter Sheng Peng, who covers the Sharks for, had a recent chat with Thompson:

Curious how the San Jose Sharks might maximize Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns’s talents? How Phil Jackson and the triangle offense will apply to the Sharks? As a coach, how to use analytics the right way?

Thompson, to say the least, loves nerding out about hockey.

Link (Paywall)

Back in 2017 I had the opportunity to meet with Thompson in his office, days before his Windsor Spitfires captured the Memorial Cup.

Then I came prepared with the work I was doing at the time for McGill University’s women’s hockey program (more on that: “Anatomy of a Modern Hockey Organization”).

Now, if we were to meet again, I’d be telling him about what I see with EK65.

The Karlsson Conundrum

The 30-year-old Karlsson is signed with SJS for $11.5M AAV until 2027.

That’s a long time and a lot of money. No matter how high Karlsson’s peak was, now he is probably in decline.

However the Swede still looks fairly good by most analytical measures.

Micah Blake McCurdy’s model has him as a high-end play-driver at 5v5.

Corey Sznajder’s micro-stat tracking shows him to be extremely active with the puck in all three zones, up to the standard he set in his prime with the Ottawa Senators.

Per HBFAnalytica’s data visualization (above), Karlsson’s zone entry creation, off-the-rush playmaking and zone exit frequency are still elite. But worrying signs include a lower proportion of Possession Exits to Total Exits, a high DZ turnover (Failed Exits) rate, and a subpar ability to defend his blue line (Entries Against %).

Right now the numbers suggest that Karlsson is still who we think he is: an all-star offensive defenseman who has trouble taking on the rush and managing risk in the defensive zone.

But beyond the numbers I am extremely worried about Karlsson’s game.

As I detailed in Chapter 3 of Hockey Tactics 2020 (“What Happened to P.K. Subban?”), Subban went from all-star, to below-average NHLer, to the worst player in the league in aggregate impact (as measured by WAR) in just three years.

In my view Karlsson is already in Year One of that nefarious transformation. The reason is simple: He is no longer a very good skater.

Time Travel: 2012

Once upon a time Erik Karlsson was a very good skater.

In 2011-12 the Norris Trophy winner racked up 78 points in 81 regular-season games thanks to his efficient and explosive movement, especially on the offensive side of the puck.

Here are some clips from the first period of a playoff game against the NY Rangers:

My Notes:

0:04: As a whole his defensive movement is not as good as his offensive movement. Here he gives up the middle of the ice when holding the offensive blue line rather than protecting the middle first and then angling out. (Read more: Defensive Skating)

0:09 Recognizes loose puck in the middle of the ice quickly and creates a middle entry. Crosses over well to build speed on first touch, weigh shifts to beat check at the line, then uses heel-to-heel skating to create space & read the ice. Excellent play.

0:23 Good use of linear crossovers to build speed on PP breakout. Drops in a head fake to open up passing lane on the entry.

0:46 Defensive skating again: Technically he lack first-step “pop” when starting backwards and does not glide well, so he needs to cross his feet early and often just to keep up with the puck carrier. Tactically, once again he gives up the middle early. He does well to shoulder check and ID the NYR F crashing the net, but fails to establish leverage and almost takes out his own goalie on the point shot. (Read more: Creating Leverage)

0:58 Once again, good use of weight shifts and crossovers, this time to manufacture a DZ carry-out under pressure. Threatens the middle of the ice across NZ. Elite play.

1:13 Exposes the middle again when defending. But he gets there early in a good angle and denies the NYR entry. His footwork is a bit sloppy, as he makes two small pushes with his right foot rather than use a full crossover when stealing the puck.

1:22 Good early shoulder checks to identify pressure on the DZ retrieval. However on the left turn his weight is centered rather than fully shifted to his inside leg. This causes him to lose speed and almost tip over coming out of the turn. His hands instinctively start to cross, which helps him find the right passing lane but limits his reach. Still he knows exactly where the help is and uses his great stick skills to create a pass exit.

1:29 Uses weight shifts and crossovers to attack the middle of the OZ on the PP. Catches pass inside a pivot to maintain speed and create a threat to the net. Excellent.

1:45 Gets to the puck first on DZ retrieval but doesn’t gain leverage and is pushed into the wall. Tries to problem-solve with his weight centered and hands crossed, which almost results in a turnover.

What we learned: 2012 Karlsson is a generational offensive D. But his inability to create leverage inside body contact and his poor defensive movement patterns means that he’s by no means the perfect player even at the height of his powers.

Time Travel: 2016

In 2013 Karlsson’s Achilles’ Tendon is severed by Matt Cooke’s skate, causing the Swede to miss most of the regular season. He bounces back from this serious injury, returns to his previous offensive pace and doesn’t miss a game in the next three years.

On October 12, 2016 the Senators, coached by Guy Boucher, face the Toronto Maple Leafs. First period:

My Notes:

0:00 The Sens set up their 1-3-1 NZ trap as TOR regroups. OTT is on a change and there is a bit of confusion at the line. Karlsson steps up on TOR11 but the real threat is TOR34 speeding down the left wing. Karlsson realizes he’s caught. He pivots, crosses his feet three times and gets just enough of TOR34 with his hip to prevent a scoring chance.

0:10 Karlsson jumps on a loose puck and moves quickly to start the breakout. But he doesn’t weight shift and gets stuck on his inside edges. He drifts to the outside and has to punt the puck into the NZ.

0:15 Creates good leverage on TOR11 by angling and putting the forechecker on his back. Then makes a quick pass to his winger. Good.

0:29 Walks the line quickly on an OZ low-to-high pass. Good slap shot, though from distance.

0:35 Good first move to protect the middle against the rush. But a poor pivot (weak crossovers instead of opening his hips and fully pushing off his right foot) prevents him from holding up TOR18, who is first on the puck.

1:10 A lot of space high in the OZ to attack against TOR’s five-tight DZC, but he takes a long-range shot again.

1:14 Sags back extremely early against TOR’s unthreatening counter-attack. OTT plays a 1-3-1 but there are no upsides for EK to be this far away from the play rather than be tighter to TOR29.

1:18 Off a OZ faceoff win, Karlsson takes two more long-range shots. The second results in a loose puck in the crease that OTT9 puts into the net. Primary assist.

1:35 On a 2v1 against he does a good job of holding his ground and forcing TOR21 to make a good pass. But immediate thereafter he gets no pop on his pivot (no weight shift, weak crossovers) and is beat to the back post.

1:42 OZ low-to-high. Walks the line. Long-range slap shot. Puck takes a bounce and goes into the net. Goal for EK.

2:00 EK steps up in the 1-3-1 to deny a TOR entry. The puck eventually ends up on the DZ right half-wall. He gets stuck on his inside edges and crosses his hands in an attempt to make a small-area pass. Then Auston Matthews swoops in…

2:21 PP shift. Looks less dynamic and has less poise with the puck than in 2012. Moves the puck to teammates quickly in DZ and NZ rather than catch inside movement and attack middle with a carry. In the OZ looks to shoot or move the puck to the uncontested flank rather than attack PK structure. Tries to force a shot through and hits OTT9 with a long-distance slapper.

What we learned:

Karlsson would finish the 2016-17 season with 71 points in 77 games, then lead the Sens to Game Seven Overtime of the Eastern Conference Finals despite playing with a broken heel. But he is getting worse. Offensively we are already seeing noticeable decline in OTT65’s ability to create separation with his movement. Defensively he’s slightly better at protecting the middle, but he is still eminently exploitable when forced to pivot.

Back to 2020

Ten NHL seasons, two serious foot/ankle injuries and a trade later, here we are in Winnipeg for Karlsson’s final game of the 2019-20 season:

0:00 Gaps up tightly to WPG81 to force a quick pass, but makes two small pushes with his right foot instead of crossing over fully to build speed. Finds himself behind the play. SJS gives up a 2v1.

0:08 Picks up a loose puck in DZ but his weight is centered and he is stuck on his inside edges. Hands start to cross to compensate. Has to make a quick pass north into contested ice.

0:11 Lets the puck change sides behind the net instead of sprinting to the wall for a retrieval. Then he is late pressuring WPG55 behind the net - he turns, waits and then lunges instead of using an open pivot to get there in one motion and neutralize the puck carrier.

0:43 Lets the rimmed puck go by him again. Later he jumps on a loose puck with WPG81 pressuring. His feet get stuck, his hands cross and he turns the puck over to WPG29 for a scoring chance against.

1:00 On an OZ low-to-high pass he throws the puck at net hoping for a deflection. Seconds later he gets another low-to-high feed that he immediately slaps on net from the right point.

1:18 On an OZ turnover EK clears out of the zone extremely early, like he did in OTT’s 1-3-1. As a result SJS20 has to make the stop on the backcheck while Karlsson watches.

1:28 Goes D-to-D with SJS8 while stuck on his inside edges. They regroup deep in their zone and Karlsson carries into the NZ. In 2012 he would’ve attacked the middle and taken about five crossovers for every forward stride, looking dynamic. Now he takes seven forward strides and only one crossover, looking very predictable. The WPG defender is on him and he has to dump the puck in at the red line.

1:50 DZ retrieval. No weight shift. Stuck on inside edges. Tries to make a middle pass with his hands only. Turnover.

2:12 DZ coverage. Stands and watches as his partner fights for the puck. Doesn’t pick up WPG55 on his way into the scrum and allows him to change sides twice behind the net uncontested.

2:24 Wins a DZ retrieval race against WPG81. The straight-line speed is still there.

2:30 Sprints the weak side of the ice to get a puck, makes a poor first touch and turns it over to WPG81, then loses an edge on his way back to defending the scoring chance.

2:45 Sprints the weak side of the ice and gets another puck. this time he goes right up to the LW and almost connects on a genius pass.

2:53 DZ retrieval. Stuck on inside edges. Almost turns it over.

3:00 PP shift. Moves puck quickly to teammates instead of catching passes inside movement. Goes “station-to-station” to SJS8 (left flank) and SJS19 (right flank), which takes time off the clock without generating threat.

4:18 Watches the puck go by with weight centered.

4:29 Ends up creating leverage and winning a 1v1 battle since he was already in movement toward his check rather than standing still and waiting.

4:41 Stands still. Puck goes by. Late to pressure. Chance against.

What we learned:

In the first period vs WPG Karlsson create zero chances for and was directly responsible for several against. All of that starts with his inability to 1) get going and 2) make his first puck touch inside movement.

Return of the Mac

Mac Hollowell has 736 fewer NHL games played than Erik Karlsson - that’s because he’s yet to appear in one. But the great Swede would do well to study the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect’s fundamentals:

  • Weight shifts

  • Open pivots

  • Defensive patterning (footwork & angling)

  • Puck plays blended inside movement (Read more: Skill Blending)

These elements are readily seen in Hollowell’s game, yet Karlsson - one of the all-time greats - has seemingly lost touch with these four foundational qualities.

As a result:

  • His success rates with the puck go down (more turnovers)

  • His success rates without the puck remain low (less turnovers forced)

Over time a player in such a situation will see his/her confidence erode and will begin to question his identify as an athlete.

Erik Karlsson is a hockey genius. But to keep playing his brand of hockey into his 30s, he’ll have to (re)incorporate some new elements to his game.

Time will tell if he and Rocky can make that happen.

Darryl Belfry, Adam Nicholas, Barb Underhill & Mike Ellis.

During my years in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization, I was taught how to identify and teach hockey skills by the best in the business.

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