Erik Karlsson admits he's not quite himself these days.
“I’ve not really got the confidence that I need. I don’t know why,” the teenage Senators defenceman said before his fifth NHL game, a class instructed by the defending champion Penguins. “But I think in time it will come, with the more experience I get. Once I do that, I’m going to start doing a lot better, I think.”
Karlsson will not fondly remember his first face-to-face with the team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Even though the two stars were held off the scoresheet, Karlsson was left a nasty souvenir by other Penguins. He and blue-line partner Chris Campoli were both minus-3.
Among the personal lowlights, he had the winning goal bounce in off his left leg after losing a boards battle with Chris Kunitz seconds earlier, he had a puck stripped from him as he tried to stickhandle by Malkin at the Ottawa blue line, and he had a bird’s-eye view of a goal scored by Jordan Staal seconds after the puck had been on Karlsson’s stick behind the Ottawa net.
“I thought he struggled a little bit (Monday) night,” said coach Cory Clouston. “I just think he’s got to realize what his assets and skills are and utilize them more. Instead of making the first pass, he tried to beat guys by himself. I didn’t think he used his teammates as well as he needs to, and understand at this level you can’t skate through players and through teams, you’re going to have to distribute the puck on breakouts. And he’s got to get back a little bit harder for pucks.
“But he’s a young player, he’s going to have some ups and downs. He’ll learn from this.”
The question is, where will the majority of this season’s lessons be taught?
Filip Kuba is “doubtful” for tomorrow’s home game against Tampa, the fifth he’ll miss with an undisclosed injury. When he returns, the Senators will have seven defenceman around.
Alex Picard, who started the season as a healthy scratch but was quickly called upon to fill in for Kuba, leads the team with a plus-5 and has three assists in four games. It’s tough to imagine him coming out of the lineup right now. Same with Matt Carkner, who made the team with a strong camp and has a plus-4 rating.
Karlsson, who has just one assist in five games, is tied for the worst plus-minus on the team (minus-4) with Alex Kovalev.
Even though they would lose a year off his entry-level deal unless Karlsson winds up playing another season in Sweden, the Senators aren’t so concerned about the contract issue. They just want their prized pick to develop into the player they believe he can be, and the best way for that to happen is likely to have Karlsson in the NHL, becoming accustomed to the physical and mental demands of an 82-game schedule as well as the North American lifestyle.
At the same time, they may also decide he’s simply not yet ready for prime time.
“Right now, I’m just taking one day at a time,” said Karlsson. “It’s a new thing for me, so of course sometimes (demotion) is in the back of your head. But I try not to focus on it. I don’t think I think about it during the games or anything. But I’m happy where I am right now.”
That is in Ottawa, at Hotel Alfie.
Karlsson and his girlfriend Therese are living with captain Daniel Alfredsson, his wife Bibi and their three sons.
Asked if he was homesick for Sweden, Karlsson said that is not an issue.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m not homesick. I like it here,” he said. “I have it as best as I can at Alfie’s right now. It’s a second home for me. I really enjoy it there. Also my girlfriend is here, and I’ve been living away from my family for three years before, so the only difference is that it’s a different country.”
Karlsson has noticed the game to be “way faster” during the regular season than training camp. But that said, he feels he can keep up. If the Senators start getting their power play going, Karlsson believes he’ll even start showing up on the scoresheet.
“I think I’ve played good so far,” the 2008 first-rounder said prior to the Pittsburgh game. “I mean I haven’t (earned) so many points, but hopefully they’ll come. Of course I want to play better, but I think I have to be satisfied with what I’ve done so far. I feel it’s getting better every day. I just hope I get the chance to stay around for the whole year. Hopefully, everything that I should do will come in time. But I think I’m happy with my play, and with my game so far.”