To start, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: any lame attempt to compare the magnitude of Erik Karlsson’s recent injury against Sidney Crosby’s battle with concussion-related health issues over the past two seasons is pure hyperbole.
(It may also be the mark of insanity.)
Both are good players, but only one of them is the world’s best.
At 25 years of age, Crosby has amassed an impressive 629 points (229 goals, 400 assists) in 448 career NHL games. Along the way, he’s collected six major individual awards: the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (2010), the Art Ross Trophy (2007), the Lester B. Pearson Trophy (2007), the Hart Memorial Trophy (2007) and two Mark Messier Leadership Awards (2007, 2010). He’s set a number of NHL records as well, including the youngest captain in league history to win the Stanley Cup. That’s not an easy feat. It speaks to both his individual talent and the degree of respect that he commands in the dressing room.
Alongside his Stanley Cup ring, you’ll find a World Junior gold medal and an Olympic gold medal.
Karlsson, in comparison, has a very respectable 159 points (43 goals, 116 assists) in 230 career NHL games. He has two major individual awards to his name: the James Norris Memorial Trophy (2012) and the Viking Award (2012; awarded annually to the best Swedish player in North America). Aside from setting some franchise records for the Ottawa Senators, however, no other major accolades appear on Karlsson’s resume.
Thus, the stats alone appear one-sided in favour of Crosby.
Of course, it can be argued that Karlsson has shown the most year-over-year improvement, going from 26 points (5 goals, 21 assists) in 2009-2010 to 78 points (19 goals, 59 assists) in 2011-2012, but this argument is overshadowed by the fact that Crosby “delivered” in his first NHL season despite playing under the unenviable twin spotlights of high expectations and widespread doubt: he tallied 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) in his rookie campaign at the tender age of 18. (Unfortunately, as we all know, it was controversial Russian rock star Alexander Ovechkin who captured the Calder Memorial Trophy that season with 106 points (52 goals, 54 assists) at the slightly older age of 20.)
It can also be objected that the two stars play completely different positions and that, therefore, any comparison is inappropriate. I agree with this argument, and it’s important to keep in mind that I don’t think an honest comparison is possible. Having said this, it can be countered that center is the most important position in hockey. It requires a strong balance between offence and defence. Control of the game from the face-off onward is a key part of any centerman’s job and this is another area where Crosby shines. Aside from playing center, however, Crosby has shown tremendous versatility in anchoring the Penguin’s power play and penalty kill (two roles traditionally reserved for a team’s best defenceman) and has even dabbled in net on occasion (albeit outside the NHL and off the ice).
I’m not convinced you get anything near the same degree of versatility from Karlsson. He might be a two-dimensional defenceman, giving you a good mixture of offence and defence, but he’s one-dimensional when it comes to playing any other position. Thus, in terms of dictating the flow of the game, this can be added to Crosby’s column.
Crosby’s case is aided by the fact he’s missed so much hockey due to injury over the past two seasons. It appears that he’s finally put these troubles behind him and has returned to his regular 1.4 points-per-game career average. Many NHL players lose some of their luster after a critical absence and here it will be important to see how Karlsson rebounds from his injury.
The type of injury suffered by both players is equally relevant. Crosby fell victim to a nasty head injury at the height of the NHL’s “concussion epidemic”. The future of his career was immediately put in doubt and this surely would have affected the entire sport. The NHL and various sponsors have built entire advertising campaigns around Crosby so his permanent loss would have left the NHL without a true league-wide star.
On the other hand, Karlsson’s injury was freak and unfortunate, but it’s not one that threatens the long-term status of his playing career and it certainly doesn’t represent a threat to the league or the ongoing safety of others players.
It cannot be denied that Karlsson’s loss will affect his team. There’s a good chance the Senators won’t make the playoffs this season given the parallel loss of Jason Spezza. Nonetheless, his injury is unlikely to grab the ongoing attention of the hockey world in the same way Crosby’s injury seemed to dominate 24-hour hockey coverage. The Karlsson injury will likely be forgotten outside of Ottawa in a week’s time when the hockey world returns its focus to the brewing goalie controversy in Vancouver.
In short, Karlsson is not filling arenas or turning channels on a league-wide basis. He might be breaking hearts in Ottawa, but this is a far cry from representing some type of significant loss to the sport of hockey as a whole.
If there’s one positive, Karlsson’s injury might force the Senators to rethink the current strength of their team. They have a number of players who are unlikely to return next season (Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar fall into this category) while they have some redundant players who are exceeding expectations right now (Craig Anderson falls into this category). It might make sense to flip these players to playoff-bound teams and continue to build a strong core of young players led in part by Karlsson for next season. This is just a thought anyway – there’s no point in letting movable assets waste away.
It makes little sense to compare the losses of Crosby and Karlsson, and it makes just as little sense to compare the talents of Karlsson against those of Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin or Paul Coffee. Orr revolutionalized the role of defencemen, Potvin was the anchor on the dominant New York Islanders teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Coffee is one of the most gifted offensive-defencemen in NHL history, setting a league record for most goals by a defencemen in 1985-1986 with 48 sweet ones that still stands today.
At least, it makes little sense to draw such comparisons at this point in Karlsson’s young career.
A better comparison can be found in Washington Capitals’ rearguard Mike Green. Both players put up nearly identical stats in their first three full seasons at the NHL level – Karlsson secured 149 points (37 goals, 112 assists; -19) while Green secured 141 points (51 goals, 90 assists; +20). A number of injuries have since set Green’s career back, but it’s important to remember that at the time of his meteoric rise to the top of the NHL there was considerable talk of him dominating the defensive category for years to come and anchoring Team Canada’s power play well into the future. In this sense, how Karlsson responds to his injury might be what sets him from Green and (perhaps) puts him on a course towards the greatness of an Orr, Potvin, Coffee or even Crosby.
Selective memories and biased viewpoints are no excuse for failing to see the true trajectory of a player.
To paraphrase fellow Fighting for Stanley writer Andrew Sykes, a “real” hockey fan would know the difference and a “real” hockey writer would check his emotions – and the excessive hyperbole – at the proverbial door.
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