Erik Karlsson already has developed into one of the NHL’s best and most exciting players. That by itself makes him fun to watch even from afar. But he’s also integral to the success of the Ottawa Senators, which means his season-ending injury is obviously a crushing blow.
Last year’s Norris Trophy winner had his left Achilles tendon cut by the skate blade of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke in Wednesday’s game. As he winced in pain and left the ice, the Senators’ season essentially ended with his.
"It was a clean cut, and recovery is expected to be 100 percent," Senators GM Bryan Murray said Thursday. "But it does mean his year finishes at this time."
The Senators were one of the league’s most pleasant surprises last season. Many had the Sens pegged for a last-place finish in the Northeast Division.
They outperformed those expectations by just a little bit. Ottawa enjoyed a 92-point season, finishing in second place in the division to Boston, which allowed them to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That was the end of the road for Paul MacLean’s bunch, but not until they took the top-seeded Rangers to seven games in the first round.
Karlsson was arguably the biggest reason for that surprising success. The 22-year-old Swede turned in one of the finest offensive seasons for a defenseman in a long time. He scored 19 goals, added 59 assists, and enjoyed a plus-16 rating (a big turnaround around compared to the minus-30 he posted in 2010-11).
For that, Karlsson was named the Norris Trophy winner. He beat out the likes of Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara to do so, establishing himself as one of the game’s elite blue liners.
Expectations were a little bit different this season. The Sens came into the year expecting to win, and Karlsson was expected to be their rock. He didn’t disappoint in the early going, logging 6-4-10 totals through 14 games while logging 27 minutes of ice time per game.
That all came crashing down Wednesday, thanks to the skate blade of Cooke.
Murray said Karlsson felt he "got directed and got cut with a skate that shouldn’t be where it was."
A seemingly freak play, Karlsson was left with a gruesome Achilles injury.
"It’s a tough blow," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "Obviously, the way he’s playing and how much he means to our team, it feels terrible and I feel really bad for him."
It’s sad, no doubt, but there’s not much that could be done. Murray says he didn’t lobby too much for supplemental discipline for Cooke, and while he admitted that perhaps something like a Kevlar sock might have helped Karlsson, Murray was quick to say that players don’t find the extra padding very comfortable (although it probably feels a little better than severing 70 percent of your Achilles tendon).
Murray also confirmed that the injury will cost Karlsson the season. He had surgery on Thursday. It’s pretty clear to see that, in the process, it will cost the Senators their season as well.
There’s just no way they can come back from such a gut-punch loss. It’s not just Karlsson’s loss that they will have to absorb either. The Sens are already without Jason Spezza, a point-per-game player for his career.
Ottawa now must try to survive in an improved Eastern Conference without its best defenseman (Karlsson) and its best center (Spezza). Then you consider they’ve also lost 2009 first-round draft pick Jared Cowen for the season. Forward Milan Michalek may miss some time after injuring himself in pregame warm-ups on Wednesday.
“We’ve got eight guys out right now,” Murray told reporters Thursday. “That’s the hard part to swallow and obviously Erik’s the prime guy in this situation."
Add it all up, and you can see why there’s not much hope anymore.
”I’m outraged by the fact we lost Erik Karlsson,” Murray said. ”I’m disappointed for him. I’m disappointed for the players on our team and the coaching staff and the fans of the city."
Sure, Craig Anderson has been one of the best goalies in the business this season, with a 1.58 goals against average and a .949 save percentage through 12 starts. But even if he keeps up that pace, where is the offense going to come from?
The Senators took a step forward in rebuilding last season, but with a pair of crippling injuries this season, they’re going to have to put that process on hold for at least a year.
”He’s a player who is irreplaceable,” Anderson said after the game. ”It’s unfortunate, but there are no words that can explain what we’re feeling.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.