I've written an awful lot about how Paul MacLean is a hell of a lot smarter than he generally leads on in the media. He does his fisherman from Nova Scotia
bit every so often to play to reporter types just looking for an interesting quote. I always grin when I hear him winding up on a response, mostly because I know it's one of his many ways to avoid giving a real answer to the question posed.
A lot's been made about Erik Karlsson's game coming around
in the past week or two, mostly because hockey narrative reigns supreme when it comes to the spoken and written word. I've made it clear in this space that, to me, Karlsson's game has been fine all season long. On every shift he looks a step ahead of the opposition and two steps ahead of his pairmate and linemates. I think that's obviously a bit problematic, and it's something Paul MacLean has subtly tried to remediate.
MacLean was asked a question today about Karlsson's "improvement", the transcription courtesy the team site
On Karlsson's improvement:
I think it's just his instincts to play are better. He's back playing the game. Earlier his instincts were maybe a bit more survivalist and just taking care of things, he was just playing I guess is better than survivalist. Now he's got the instincts back of when to do things and when not to do things instead of just doing things. I think he has more control over his game…We don't have any ceiling for him so he can just keep going. I think his skating ability is obviously back there. I thought the way he played last night, he really controlled a lot of the pace of the game and the tempo of the game and if that continues he can continue and we've very looking forward to watching that.
Bless the defending Jack Adams winner, this is mostly nonsense. It's hockey cliche mixed in with intangibles and other verbiage that would make the late Tom Clancy proud.
The cool thing about the statistical movement in hockey is you can investigate what, if anything, has changed. If there's one thing I've really hammered into oblivion this year, it's that the Ottawa Senators -- a pedestrian 5-6-4 after a fairly-tough early-season schedule -- have really been a one-line, one-pairing team.
Early in the season, it seemed to me that MacLean was separating the two. He was trying to get the Spezza line going by playing them in front of Karlsson's pairing, and he was trying to insulate a bunch of defensive pairings by playing them with the Turris line.
So, as you probably could guess, my theory is that Karlsson's game didn't magically improve in two weeks time. Rather, it's likely that he's (a) moved away from lines that might struggle defensively / might struggle to drive possession; (b) moved towards line(s) that generally have the puck and are playing in the opposition's offensive zone.
I pulled all of Erik Karlsson's even-strength ice-time with the big three centers on this team -- Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, and Zack Smith -- and percentaged the time they spent together per-game.
Ignore the weird Turris spike in the lone early game Spezza was absent, and the trend is even more clear. The percentage of ice-time Karlsson sees with Spezza continues to decrease. The percentage of ice-time Karlsson sees with Turris continues to increase. And, the last two games saw an explosion of top-line/top-pair matching that probably will be a trend until it doesn't work anymore.
The Smith line sort of floats in there -- they pick up TOI with #65 primarily because he's basically always on the ice, but the way Zack is playing, you can't see any of those minutes as wasted right now.
There might be other things going right for Karlsson right now, but I'd comfortably bet that a lot of it has to do with playing significantly more with three guys super-capable of clearing the defensive zone, and super-capable of playing the possession-game.
At the very least, I'd bet on it being more of a factor than, say, survivalism.
Thanks for reading!