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The already great Erik Karlsson evolves in subtle ways for the Ottawa Senators

Erik Karlsson has evolved for the Senators

Guy Boucher might be biased, but the Ottawa Senators head coach is certain Erik Karlsson deserves consideration for the Hart trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.

“With what he’s done this year, the way he’s done it, I can’t imagine better,” Boucher said. “Right now it’s absolutely sublime, it really is.”

Karlsson is having the most well-rounded season of a career that’s already includes two Norris trophies. But his improvements have actually been subtle, magnified by the Senators’ excellent play this season.

In other words, he was already pretty good.

Even Karlsson wonders if he’s actually at his best, noting no improvements in his skill or skating “or anything like that.”

“I think that as of right now with the team that we have and the style of play that we have I think that everybody has done a good job in adapting to it and finding ways within the system to be successful,” a diplomatic Karlsson said.

His defensive improvement this season is primarily tied to blocked shots. He unexpectedly led the league with 196 entering Wednesday’s games and already has more than last year, when he finished 11th.

He said the improvement has been “helping me defensively to get pucks out easier and not having to battle the big guys in front of the net.”

“The blocks are so well thought out,” veteran Senators centre Chris Kelly said. “It’s not just going out there and fronting it, he’s realizing when the proper time is to block the shot and get the play going.”

The increased dedication to shot-blocking seems indicates commitment to Boucher’s “extremely defensive” style of play, which has the club leading the NHL in blocked shots while leaping from one of the worst defensive outfits to top-10 status.

More blocked shots means less time with the puck though, so the Senators are actually giving up more shot attempts with Karlsson on the ice this year. The captain’s puck possession numbers, relative to teammates, have also gotten slightly worse as he adapts to fit the team’s system.

Absorbing the NHL’s heaviest workload last season — almost 29 minutes per-game — Karlsson has seen his ice-time scaled back under Boucher. Karlsson is actually garnering almost five shifts more per-game than last year (31.7, second-most in the NHL), but they’re cut down by 13 seconds on average.

Maybe most interesting and effective for Ottawa is an increase in Karlsson’s penalty killing duties, which has helped the unit leap from 29th last year to top-15 overall.

“There’s always going to be nights when you think you can do more and you want to do more, but you don’t get the chance to do it and at the end of the day that might be a good thing,” Karlsson said.

Karlsson’s per-minute scoring numbers are about on par with last year when he became the first defenceman to post 82 points in one season since Brian Leetch and Ray Bourque in 1995-96. He was robbed of another Norris as voters sought to rectify Drew Doughty’s lack of hardware.

Having nearly caught Brent Burns for control of the points lead among defencemen this season, while starring for an unexpected Atlantic division contender, Karlsson is increasingly looking like the favourite for the award once more.

Perhaps no better judge of his long-term evolution exists than Kelly, a teammate during Karlsson’s first two NHL seasons who then played in Boston for six years before returning to the club last summer.

The 36-year-old sees a more confident and physically mature Karlsson, someone who’s rounded into a “special player”.

It was all the little plays that made him great, Kelly said, how he helped Ottawa easily exit the defensive zone, how crafty he was in creating scoring opportunities, how well he skated, how he ran a power play and how underrated he was as a defender “because the highlights don’t show that”.

“You see the highlights of him going end to end or making a nice move and making a great pass, but the game-to-game plays to help our team have success that’s what I’ve got a truer appreciation for,” Kelly said.

Given all he does and does exceptionally well for Ottawa — including elite-level power play production â€” Karlsson is owed not just Norris love but MVP consideration as Boucher suggests.

“Every effort he’s put in, his approach to the team this season, this year, was all about leadership and winning and the collective and it’s easy to say, but he’s done it,” Boucher said. “It’s the price of the ticket right there for sure.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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