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Karlsson Looks Back at Time With Sharks, Denies ‘Strained Relationship’ With Burns

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Credit: Pittsburgh Penguins

Lost and found.

That’s one way to describe Erik Karlsson’s tenure with the San Jose Sharks.

Karlsson, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, turned the page in his introductory press conference.

But the 33-year-old also looked back at his time in San Jose with a mixture of fondness and regret.

“I found the joy in the game again,” Karlsson said of this past season, when he became the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to top 100 points.

The 2023 Norris Trophy winner credited the Sharks, in part, for that, and new head coach David Quinn.

“I had a lot of fun playing hockey last year, and coming to the rink every day, even though it wasn’t under the easiest of circumstances, and we didn’t win very many games. Credit to everybody who was in San Jose, from the coaching staff and my teammates there, we had fun together. We made it fun coming in and putting in the work. That was something that, looking back, probably was missing a little bit from the previous years,” he shared. “I had a great relationship with Quinny. I think he’s a fantastic coach, and he did some really good things for us in San Jose.”

Karlsson even made a joke at his old coach’s expense. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is good friends with Quinn, and they both went to Boston University.

“I’ve met Sully throughout the years, but I didn’t really make the connection between him and David Quinn until I first talked to him, because they sound pretty much the same and have the same dialect. I could tell that they’re both Boston guys. I figured they were good pals,” Karlsson said. “That makes it a little bit more comforting, knowing that they kind of come from the same school, if you would like to say, or feels like, they have similar backgrounds.”

Of course, it’s also in San Jose where Karlsson lost that joy in the game.

In Sept. 2018, the Sharks acquired Karlsson, 28, from the Ottawa Senators, amidst much fanfare.

The 2012 and 2015 Norris Trophy winner, and 2016 and 2017 runner-up, was expected to team up with 2017 Norris winner Brent Burns and 2014 Olympic gold medalist Marc-Edouard Vlasic in a blueline for the ages, one that would propel the San Jose Sharks to their first-ever Stanley Cup.

It was a promising-enough debut campaign in San Jose for Karlsson.

After a slow start to 2018-19, Karlsson and the Sharks caught fire. In a 21-game stretch, from Dec. 2 to Jan. 15, Karlsson put up 27 points and San Jose went 16-3-2.

But then, Karlsson suffered a persistent groin injury that seems to have derailed his career trajectory. He was never quite the same for the rest of the season, and the Sharks bowed out in the Western Conference Finals to first-time Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Still, at the time, things were looking up for Karlsson and the San Jose Sharks. Karlsson was about to hit unrestricted free agency and had demonstrated that he was still one of the best defensemen in the world. He had off-season groin surgery that he was supposed to fully recover from. And San Jose, even with the impending departure of captain Joe Pavelski in free agency, still looked primed to be in the playoff hunt in the years to come.

In Jun. 2019, the Sharks inked Karlsson to an eight-year, $92 million pact.

It’s easy to forget how good it was when it’s been so bad for so long.

After that contract, the once point-per-game defenseman’s production plummeted, lowlighted by just 22 points in 52 games during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign. Along the way, Karlsson, perhaps still recovering from groin surgery, didn’t look quite as light on his feet, and also missed significant time because of thumb and forearm surgeries.

From 2011 to 2019, Karlsson led all defensemen with a 0.9 Points Per Game average. That dropped to 0.61 from 2019 to 2022.

And San Jose missed the playoffs in every season, in part because of Karlsson’s diminished play, but also an aging core and a stagnant farm system.

37-year-old Burns, for example, was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes last summer.

“I don’t think we had a strained relationship,” Karlsson said of the Pittsburgh-based report that he didn’t get along with Burns. “We’re actually pretty good friends, personally.”

To the end, Carolina appeared to be the runner-up for Karlsson’s services. So whatever his relationship with Burns, Karlsson, armed with the No-Movement Clause in his contract, seemed willing to run it back with his ex-teammate.

“I just think that when you don’t do well as a team, collectively, things don’t tend to work out for anyone. And it didn’t, for a long time,” Karlsson said of his time in San Jose. “It’s just unfortunate that it played out that way.”

Karlsson is hoping that Pittsburgh plays out a different way, and will be a continuation of his brilliance last year.

Health and happiness, four years removed from groin surgery, and post-pandemic, will be key.

“I’ve been healthy for a longer period of time. I think that really showed [this year], and it made me feel a lot better about myself in a lot of different ways,” Karlsson said. “My personal life, my kids and my family [are] in a good place, and kind of settled in a little bit.”

And a few more wins will help too.

“It’s always been the ultimate drive, for myself,” Karlsson said of joining Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang’s chase for another Stanley Cup. “I like to play the important games, and I like to be on successful teams and having success collectively as a group.”

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