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Karlsson & How Analytics Got Me to Watch the Game



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Analytics is actually a big reason why I write about hockey.

I was a life-long hockey fan, but as an unathletic 5-foot-8 Taiwanese kid who had gone to “Arcasia” High School – that was the nickname for the heavily Asian-populated Arcadia High School in the suburbs of Los Angeles County – well, let’s just say that I couldn’t really relate personally to an ice sport, comprised mostly of Caucasians, that was equal parts ballet and street fight.

What early hockey analytics, we’re talking Corsi in 2012, ultimately meant to me, they were a way to access, to unlock the mystery of a sport that had fascinated me since the first time that Wayne Gretzky put on a black, silver, and white jersey.

Like, of course you want more shot attempts than your opponent. And of course, you want players on your team that can drive shot attempts.

A decade later, I know there’s more to winning hockey than that. But I thought back to that when I watched Erik Karlsson and the San Jose Sharks pelt Karlsson’s former team with shot attempt after attempt during the second period of their 5-1 victory last night. The Sharks outattempted the Sens 29-15 at 5-on-5 in the middle frame, on their way to scoring three goals to take a decisive lead.

Karlsson, of course, was the poster child of the first decade of public hockey analytics, with his ability to drive play for his team. Relative to his teammates, there was no defenseman better than Karlsson at 5-on-5 shot attempt share in his peak Ottawa Senators campaigns from 2011 to 2018.

Karlsson back then, in some ways, was a gateway to the next step in my evolution as a hockey writer. So Karlsson’s Corsi %, Relative to Teammate, was jaw-dropping on paper. But what was he actually doing on the ice, differently than his peers, that made him a true driver of play?

I’m simplifying, but that’s how I went from watching the game to analytics to watching the game again.

Lucky for the San Jose Sharks, the 32-year-old is still doing a lot of same things to drive play that he was doing a decade ago.

Here’s some of what I saw last night in the second period.

Shoot Away

Karlsson, like many elite athletes, is not fond of opening up the hood on what makes him so good.

I asked him a few games ago about his elevated shooting rate this season.

“I’ve got great new sticks from Warrior,” he quipped.

Last night, according to Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson eclipsed over 10 shot attempts a game in All Situations for the fifth time this season. This is in just 21 games.

Last year, in 50 games, Karlsson had 10-plus shot attempts just four times. In 2020-21, he hit this mark twice in 52 appearances. In 2019-20, once in 56 contests.

The last time that Karlsson fired away at this clip, it was his first season in San Jose, 12 times in 53 games in 2018-19.

By the way, he did that with 2019 Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns on the same blueline, so let’s dispel that narrative that Karlsson and Burns couldn’t co-exist with each other.

But anyway, want to dominate shot share? Well, shoot yourself and from everywhere, which Karlsson is doing with aplomb this season.

Just as importantly, he’s getting his shot through. His 7.68 Shots Per 60 is well ahead of 2019-22’s 5.53 pace.

Slot Passes

Want to get your teammates to shoot? Give them the puck in dangerous areas.

Karlsson finds Jonah Gadjovich (42) for a deflection in the slot.

Per SPORTLOGiQ, Karlsson leads the San Jose Sharks with 2.25 Slot Passes Per Game. This is well ahead of his 1.78 pace last year.

I’m focused on the pass here, of course, but Karlsson’s quick first step – see how he evades Alex DeBrincat (12) at the point – and his patience to wait for Gadjovich are part of his high-end offensive package.

As an aside, Logan Couture sets a smart area pick on Artem Zub (2) to buy some time for Karlsson to hit Gadjovich jumping on.

Time and Space

Karlsson’s ability to leave the first forechecker in the dust – old teammate Dylan Gambrell (27) in this case – basically turns any even strength situation into an odd-man, at least momentarily.

It’s part of why Karlsson is able to gain the zone with puck possession so consistently: He’s left one forechecker behind and the rest of the defense is on their heels, trying to get set.

On crossing the blueline, Karlsson’s cool with the puck takes over. Alexander Barabanov (94) also sets a soft pick on Gambrell.

Five Sens eye him, but Karlsson doesn’t flinch, until he’s able to put the puck in a place where his teammate can get it.

What this clip and the Gadjovich one have in common is how they showcase Karlsson’s ability to create time and space for his teammates.

Notice, before Karlsson finds Gadjovich, five pairs of Ottawa eyes on the defenseman. The Senators know that Karlsson is looking for an open man. But because of Karlsson’s patience with the puck and the opponents’ respect for him, there are soft spots to exploit, which is what Karlsson and Gadjovich do.

It’s a simple offensive zone formula, if you think about: Karlsson creates more time and space for his teammates. He gets the puck to his teammates, who have more time and space. What do hockey players with time and space in the OZ do? They’re more likely to shoot.

This is underscored by one catch-all SPORTLOGiQ stat: Karlsson is the second-best defenseman in the NHL right now with 4.77 Offense-Generating Plays per 20 at 5-on-5.

Per SPORTLOGiQ, offense-generating plays “are made up of all plays that lead to scoring chances. In other words, they’re plays that move the puck into high danger areas or situations, recovering pucks for your team, and putting high quality shot attempts on net.”

Anyway, it’s 2022, and it’s a different kind of stat that loves Karlsson. But this time, it’s a stat that meets the eye test.

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