VANCOUVER – In the 1950s and 1960s, legendary Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren published books about a character named Karlsson-on-the-Roof, a young Swedish man who can fly and wreaks general havoc with his lively approach.
In the 2010s, another young Swedish man who can fly (on skates) and wreaks general havoc with his lively approach (on opposing hockey goalies) is writing his own story in the NHL. His name is Erik Karlsson.
Now in his third NHL season with the Ottawa Senators, the 21-year-old defenceman from Landsbro has emerged as one of the league’s finest skaters. His exciting, roving style draws comparisons to young blueline peers like Kristopher Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings. Whether you’re looking for someone to take the puck end to end, deliver a perfect breakaway pass, stickhandle in traffic, or get a point shot through to the net, Karlsson’s your man.
His defensive game is still evolving, and wherever it ends up will likely determine his future Norris Trophy prospects. Karlsson recorded a plus-minus of -30 last season, ranking him 889th out of 891 NHL players, although that was largely chalked up to the heavy minutes against top opponents he logged.
He was chosen to play in the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina last January. With a whopping 147,468 votes after the first week of balloting for this year’s All-Star Game, he leads the way among defencemen – perhaps not surprisingly since it’s taking place in Ottawa.
This season, Karlsson has recorded 19 points so far, putting him in a four-way tie for first place among NHL blueliners, and he’s on pace to easily surpass his career-high total of 45 points from 2010-11. Named Best Defenceman at both the IIHF U18 and U20 championships in the not-so-distant past, Karlsson has come a long way since being the youngest player to suit up for Frölunda Gothenburg in 2007-08.
IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Karlsson – sporting a mullet, mustache, and “Hockey Fights Cancer” cap – after Ottawa dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on November 20. (Karlsson logged a season-high 30:24 in this outing.)
You’re currently vying for the NHL lead in assists. How do you feel about the way you’ve played so far this year?
Ah, I’ve come away with some easy points there. I’m still struggling a bit with scoring goals. But hopefully it will come soon. I’m just going to try to hang in there.
How are you enjoying the opportunity to team up at times with a veteran scoring defenceman in Sergei Gonchar?
I think we work well together and we learn stuff from each other. We’re similar players, but still play a different game sometimes. I think it suits us well, especially on the power play.
Who were your biggest idols when you were growing up?
A bunch of guys. Obviously, Alfie [Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson], Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidström. They’re good players, and they’re a bit older than me, so I always watched them as a kid.
You and Daniel are both products of the Frölunda organization. How much has he helped you make the transition to the NHL?
He’s been great for me, right from the start. He really took care of me when I came in, and we’ve become really good friends. He still helps me a lot with certain things. He’s definitely helped me become a better hockey player.
The World Juniors are coming up in Calgary and Edmonton. You represented Sweden in 2009 in Ottawa, the last time the tournament was held in a Canadian NHL city. What advice would you give the kids who are going to wear the Tre Kronor jersey this year?
It’s a great experience. I remember it as probably the biggest tournament I ever played as a junior. You come away with a lot of experience from that tournament when you go into your regular season with your club team. It makes you grow as a player. You get to know how big the tournament is over here, and you learn about what you need to do to be successful.
People are cheering for you now at Scotiabank Place, but back in 2009, the Swedes were the villains in the gold medal game, which Canada won 5-1. You were in a building that had as much excitement as the Stanley Cup final, and the crowd was booing guys like Victor Hedman and Jacob Markström. What was that like?
I don’t think anybody on our team had ever seen something like that. I still haven’t played another game where the crowd was so much into it. It’s something that you’ll always cherish, even though they didn’t cheer for you. It was still a great atmosphere and the fans were unbelievable. There was so much joy in there. It was a good thing to do, even though we lost.
What do you think of the job coach Pär Mårts did with the junior program in Sweden before moving on to the senior national team?
He was great. When he came into the junior national team, I liked him right away. He has a philosophy of looking at hockey the way the Swedish players are playing right now, I think. It’s a lot of skill and playing with the puck, not just throwing it away. He’s also really good at getting to know the players, too. Everybody’s so different, and he knows what he needs to do for every player for them to be successful. It’s really good to play for him. He’s a great guy as well. He knows that every guy needs to perform to make the team work. It’s still a team sport, and he combines all those elements well.
He seemed to really emphasize that you guys should aim to win gold, too. It’s been a long time since Sweden’s won the World Juniors – 1981 – but he didn’t feel like it was just OK to settle for, say, bronze. Was that important?
I think so. We knew we had a good team coming in, and if you look back at the players we had back then and play now in the NHL and are really successful, I think we’re almost even with the Canadian team they had back then. It was a good thing for us to believe in ourselves and not give in to anything. Even though it was in Canada, we couldn’t let them rule everything and get their way like they always have. Unfortunately we didn’t play our best game in the finals and that’s the way it is sometimes. But I think the mentality we had and the memories we have are really good.
You’re going to be 23 when the Sochi Olympics open in 2014. How important for you is it that the NHL be part of that?
I think it’s really important. When the World Cup of Hockey isn’t taking place anymore, it’s the biggest national tournament that you can play in. It’s only every fourth year. I think for every player in the NHL, it’s an important tournament to have. Guys are really looking forward to playing in it. It will be a real disappointment if we can’t go there.
There’s still a lot of hockey to play before then. What will be the key to making sure this Ottawa club gets back into the playoffs after missing out last season?
I just think we have to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re a young, skilled team and we can’t keep looking too far ahead. Ultimately, our goal is to come to the playoffs, obviously, but we’re not looking that far now. All we see is the next game. It’s a pretty good cliché, but that’s what we have to do. We have to outbattle every team we play.