Erik Karlsson finally has his swagger back

A healthy Erik Karlsson is back in vintage form this season, and it's a beautiful thing. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)
A healthy Erik Karlsson is back in vintage form this season, and it's a beautiful thing. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

One of the most dominant defensemen to play in the NHL's modern era is finding himself again.

On Tuesday night, Erik Karlsson looked young and spry, turning back the clock as he rifled home three goals for the first hat trick of his illustrious career. It was also the first three-goal night from a blueliner in Sharks franchise history — and Karlsson looks like he's just getting started on his revenge tour for the ages.

The three goals and four points Karlsson earned Tuesday in a tight 6-5 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks gives the 32-year-old nine goals and 15 points in just 12 games this season. Karlsson is tied for sixth in scoring among all skaters and only Connor McDavid has buried more goals so far. Add in the fact he’s doing this on a team that has a 3-8-1 record and is sitting just one point above a trio of teams tied for last in the NHL, and it becomes even more impressive.

Rather ridiculously, Karlsson is already smashing his offensive pace from last season. During the 50 games he managed to play in 2021-22, he recorded 10 goals and 35 points. In less than a quarter of the games this year, he's just one away from tying that goal total and has just under half the amount of points.

It's a wild year-over-year turnaround from a numbers standpoint, no doubt, but let's not forget this is a player who, at his peak, was essentially untouchable as he dominated the league with the Ottawa Senators for a good six-year stretch. From 2011 to 2018, Karlsson won two Norris Trophies as the NHL's top defenceman, was a runner-up two other times, was a four-time All-Star, scored 16 or more goals in a season four times — including a pair of 20-plus goal campaigns — while averaging nearly a point per game (0.91), as a defenceman.

He would regularly treat us to absurd highlights like this, too:

Unfortunately for the once high-flying star, injuries started catching up to him near the end of his time in Ottawa and during his first few campaigns with the Sharks. Last season he needed surgery to repair a tear in his forearm. The season before that he broke his thumb. And the kicker of all was his consistent, nagging ankle issues ever since doctors removed part of his ankle bone and replaced it with an artificial tendon during the 2017 offseason.

That's without even mentioning when Matt Cooke severely cut Karlsson’s achilles tendon on the ice back in 2013, impacting his skating for years to come.

Karlsson has had his fair share of major injuries, to say the least, but he always seems to find his way back to elite status, even if it takes some time. What we’re seeing through the first few weeks of this season feels like the old Erik Karlsson. The one that would speed back on defence to break up a play, turn up ice in a hurry and stickhandle his way through top defenders to single handedly earn his team a big goal.

We missed this so much.

Since his emotional move to San Jose from Ottawa back in 2018, his game just hasn’t been the same — something most chalked up to his injury history and the natural aging declines that tend to plague over-30 defenceman in this league. He got All-Star recognition in his first season on the west coast, but since then, it's been mostly mediocrity or worse for a variety of reasons.

Now, he truly does look as healthy as he has in years. His skating — the central part to his game — looks much better in open ice and tight areas. With his feet working for him again, Karlsson’s shot is much improved, too. We most likely won't see the shockwave that he would create on the ice every single shift back in his Sens days, forcing defenders to fumble the puck and doublethink any decision they made, but him looking healthy and scoring again is all we need.

Maybe it's the departure of Brent Burns from San Jose and the Swedish blueliner taking over as the top option, or the full recovery of his decade-long injury troubles, but Karlsson is more than back. The 32-year-old still has miles ahead of him (and five more seasons on his contract) on a team that is hopefully going to turn it around within a year or two, for Karlsson’s sake.

In a league that now features electrifying defensemen like Cale Makar, Roman Josi, and Adam Fox, Karlsson is reminding them all that he is the OG.

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