TRAIKOS: Can Erik Karlsson stay that way long enough for a trade?

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Two months have gone by and Erik Karlsson continues to amaze. 

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With 11 goals and 32 points in 26 games, he’s putting up numbers that have him in the top-5 in scoring, while reminding fans of the player who won a couple of Norris Trophies and used to be the template for the modern-day defenceman. And yet, the most impressive thing that Karlsson has done so far this season has nothing to do with anything he’s actually done on the ice. Rather, it’s the fact that he’s not had to leave the ice.

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For the first time in a long time, the 32-year-old is healthy.

Knock on wood, Karlsson has yet to miss a game. Has yet to tear a tendon, break a bone or leave the lineup with one of those mysterious lower- or upper-body injuries. It’s something that hasn’t happened since he was traded from Ottawa to San Jose way back in 2018.

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“I’ve been feeling good for a while now,” said Karlsson, who faces his former team on Saturday. “Obviously, right now it’s clicking more. But physically, I think I’m at a good place. I feel like I can still do the stuff that I did when I was in my 20s.”

Those days seem like they happened in another lifetime. Long before a forensics team was hired to investigate how Karlsson’s ankle was sliced open by an opponent’s skate.

In the last four years alone, the anti-Iron Man has missed nearly a full season’s worth of games for a variety of reasons. They include four lower-body injuries and one upper-body injury. But they don’t include the pair of groin injuries he had in 2019 and 2021. Or the forearm muscle tear that required surgery, which cost him another three months. Or the broken thumb, which ended his season a couple of years ago.

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You name it, Karlsson has hurt, torn or broken it — probably more than once. 

“Everyone gets injured in this game. It’s a physical sport. It’s a gruelling season,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture. “He’s worked extremely hard to get himself ready for this season. I don’t know if it’s revenge against anything. I think it’s just a proud player wanting to show himself and teammates that he can be a dominant player in the league. And that’s what he’s doing.”

Indeed, not being in the lineup is a big reason why Karlsson hasn’t scored more than 45 points since arriving to San Jose. After all, it’s difficult to put up points when you’re averaging just 52 games in each of the past four years. But now that he’s playing every single night, his health is also a big reason why it looks like he’s turned back the clock. 

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“Erik’s in a different point in his career,” said Sharks head coach David Quinn. “He’s 32 years old and it’s been a frustrating few years for him for a variety of reasons — one being health. I kind of had a good feeling coming into camp here that he was in a different mindset for a variety of reasons and namely his health. He was excited about the year. 

“You’re seeing a Norris Trophy-winning defenceman again.”

Well, that depends on where Karlsson finishes the season.

With the Sharks stuck at the bottom of the standings, it’s going to be hard for voters to cast a ballot for a player whose team is on a path toward landing a lottery pick in next year’s draft. But all of that changes if he gets traded to a contender, like Toronto or Tampa Bay or the New York Rangers.

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The only question is can he stay healthy long enough for it to happen. 

It’s a question that a lot of general managers will be asking as the trade chatter picks up for one of the most talented defencemen in the league. No team wants to trade for a player who can’t stay in the lineup. Not even for one as talented as Karlsson.

It’s what makes trading for the oft-injured defenceman, who hasn’t played a full 82-game season since 2016, a big-time risk. Not just for this year — but also for the remainder of a hefty contract that carries an $11.5 million cap hit and stretches on for another four years. By the time it expires, Karlsson will be 37.

Will he still be playing at a high level then? Will he even be playing?

“If I had answers to those questions, it’s something that I would have done every year and every summer,” said Karlsson. “It’s a reaction sport. I find that the more you try to control it, the less you do. I had a good summer this year. I went back to Sweden, I got to see my family that I haven’t seen in a while. I got to bring my kids there. My life in general is just very good right now. I’m in a good routine. Maybe that’s done me good.”

For those reasons, maybe Karlsson will decide not to waive his no-trade clause this season. Maybe he won’t want to jinx what’s finally working for him. Maybe, like in his final year with the Senators, he’ll simply be happy to put up points for a non-contender. 

If so, here’s hoping he’s able to stay healthy.

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