Melker Karlsson is not a pylon.
This should be made clear. He is a defensively responsible player who was once quite good on both ends of the ice and versatile enough to serve as a scoring threat and shutdown forward. The key word, however, is once. He’s not quite all that good anymore, and this season probably encapsulated his strengths and limitations best.
Karlsson was a near-constant presence in San Jose’s lineup, taking shifts on both the third and fourth line to the tune of roughly 11 minutes a night. He was a constant presence on the penalty kill, where he continued to put in quality defensive shifts on a league-average shorthanded unit. He also was a frequent presence on final-minute shifts where the Sharks preserved the lead, chipping in with a couple of useful empty net goals throughout the season.
Unfortunately, Karlsson, who is still quite okay at limiting opponents’ chances against, also does an extremely good job of limiting his own team’s chances at the opposition’s net. Playing exclusively on the wing this season, Karlsson offered close to nothing offensively. He began the year with a 23-game goalless drought and finished it with 12 goals and four assists in 79 games while tallying a mere 79 shots, despite getting very favorable zone starts (over 50 percent of his starts were in the offensive zone, via Hockey-Reference). Despite this, DeBoer would frequently ice Karlsson over more talented forwards like Lukas Radil and Antti Suomela, citing his defensively responsible play.
Karlsson did have some highlights over the year, like his multi-goal game against Chicago in March, and he still has a very good shot that we saw him use to good effect at times. He remains a valued locker-room presence, and his teammates offered a spirited defense of him against online attacks from Sharks fans. However, it’s increasingly tough for DeBoer and Wilson to justify his near-constant presence in the lineup, especially when they come at the cost of icing other forwards that are more than capable of not negatively impacting the team’s offensive performance.
Karlsson is a decent enough fourth liner and certainly isn’t a pylon like the ones San Jose used to ice. It’s also entirely possible that DeBoer looked at the struggles of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell this year and decided he wanted to go with a more defensively responsible fourth liner, especially with offensive dynamos like Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson on the roster. The recurring feeling, however, is that with an immense cap crunch and cheap forwards like Antti Suomela, Lean Bergmann, Joel Kellman and Danil Yurtaikin in the pipeline, San Jose might be better off without Karlsson’s limited offensive play and, more importantly, his $2 million cap hit.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
Karlsson received minutes at the rate of a third-liner while producing at around one primary point per hour, which puts him solidly in fourth line range. As confirmed by HockeyViz’s visualization, Karlsson recovered quite decently from his horrific start to the season, but was never scoring at a rate that justified the third line minutes or zone starts he was getting throughout the season.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
Karlsson received almost no power-play time this year, so we’ll talk mainly about the even-strength play we saw from him this year. Karlsson was quite decent at limiting shots and chances against, performing around three-fourths of a standard deviation above average in this regard. However, offensively, he was close to a black hole, with metrics that put him close to two standard deviations below the average forward’s performance in terms of chance generation and goals-for. Karlsson struggled to generate any type of offense in the right direction, and it’s tough to say he limited enough chances against to be worth his contract and deployment.
This highlight from San Jose’s 4-2 loss to Florida in March is the type of play Sharks fans wish they saw more of from Karlsson. The forward received the puck in the neutral zone before skating past defender Keith Yandle, and while he got knocked down, he never lost control of the puck and recovered to snipe a wicked shot past Sam Montembeault.
What comes next?
Karlsson isn’t the player he once was, and his play this season made it painfully obvious. His offensive performance no longer justifies his minutes or deployment, and while he’s clearly still a decent defensive forward and penalty killer, perhaps it makes sense for San Jose to cut bait and move on, especially given his age (he’ll be 29 at the start of next season) and his limited scope for improvement. They might have to attach an asset to his contract to move it, but with every dollar of cap space currently worth its weight in gold to San Jose, look for Doug Wilson to try shipping Karlsson out in order to make roster and cap space for young forwards like Alexander Chmelevski, Joel Kellman and Ivan Chekhovich.