Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re rating 100 gamers however calling it 99 as a result of everyone knows who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we’ve to determine. Every Monday by Saturday till February we’ll unveil new members of the checklist.
Two weeks earlier than his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Daniel Alfredsson has agreed to sit down down for a prolonged interview about his profession.
As he’s discussing his outstanding return from a knee harm in the course of the 2008 playoffs, his telephone on the desk begins buzzing.
Alfredsson holds it as much as reveal that he’s receiving a name from Erik Karlsson.
“He only phones me when he’s playing well,” Alfredsson quips.
When this anecdote bought relayed to Karlsson, the Sharks defenseman chuckled. Approximately 12 hours earlier, Karlsson scored an impressive highlight-reel aim to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in time beyond regulation.
But he wasn’t phoning to boast to his outdated teammate and mentor.
“I think we communicate quite a bit, but it’s tough with the time difference,” Karlsson mentioned. “I’d like to say we speak every week. And maybe it’s about hockey. Or maybe it’s about general stuff, but we still know what’s going on with each other.”
Almost 15 years after they first met, Alfredsson and Karlsson proceed to construct on a singular friendship that has stood the check of time.
It’s a relationship that simply may produce two Hall of Fame careers and one which helped put Karlsson at No. 60 on The Athletic’s rating of the best gamers within the fashionable period of the NHL.
On June 20, 2008, Alfredsson was tasked with revealing the Ottawa Senators’ first-round draft decide.
With Ottawa internet hosting the occasion in its enviornment, the Senators needed to grab the second by having their captain announce the first-rounder. At the workforce’s draft desk, basic supervisor Bryan Murray gave Alfredsson a scouting report on the prospect he could be asserting.
“Bryan told me we were going to draft this Swedish defenseman. I remember he told me, ‘I think you’ll really like him, but you probably won’t get a chance to play with him,’” Alfredsson mentioned. “He said he’s going to need at least three years to get over here.”
The Senators brass approached the draft podium after buying and selling up two spots to safe the No. 15 general choice. As they climbed the steps, Alfredsson was straight behind workforce proprietor Eugene Melnyk and in entrance of Pierre Dorion, who was the chief beginner scout on the time. Assistant basic supervisor Tim Murray greeted the house crowd first, earlier than handing the stage over to Alfredsson.
“Thank you very much. And thanks again for a great season last year,” Alfredsson mentioned into the microphone. “I’m proud to announce that the Ottawa Senators select with their first selection, Erik Karlsson, from Frolunda, Sweden.”
Karlsson — formally listed within the draft information at 157 kilos — got here bouncing down the steps sporting a navy go well with with a costume shirt that gave the impression to be an inch or two too giant across the collar.
“I had never met him before I called his name,” Alfredsson mentioned. “I never thought anything like, ‘He’s too skinny or too thin’ — which he definitely was. But you could tell right away he was a confident kid, in a good way. He believed in himself.”
That confidence allowed Karlsson to speed up his path to the NHL. Instead of a three-year wait, Karlsson was within the Senators’ opening-night lineup simply 16 months after Alfredsson known as his identify.
And the 2 males — who may very nicely be mistaken for a father-son duo — would kind a bond that prolonged far past the ice.
During his rookie season in 2009-10, Karlsson confirmed flashes of the Norris Trophy defenseman he would develop into. As a 19-year-old, he had some dazzling nights.
In a Jan. 30 win over Montreal, Karlsson logged a team-high 24:51 of ice time and picked up two assists to assist Ottawa win its ninth consecutive sport.
In Game 5 of their playoff collection towards Pittsburgh that spring, with the Senators dealing with elimination, Karlsson noticed an eye-popping 40:38 of ice time within the triple-overtime thriller. The teenager performed extra that night time than Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza and Alfredsson. Only Pittsburgh blueliner Sergei Gonchar performed extra (44:08).
By the top of the collection, Karlsson had collected six factors in six video games and served discover to the hockey world that he was on the doorstep of greatness.
“Even that first year, you could see it with the plays he could make and the speed he had,” Alfredsson mentioned. “I had seen (Marian) Hossa and (Martin) Havlat. I had seen fast guys. But this was a different level in my opinion.”
Alfredsson was awestruck by Karlsson’s effortlessness.
“The way I skated, my skates were always deep into the ice. But with Erik, it was like he was gliding on top of it. Like he’s not even touching it,” Alfredsson mentioned. “He would lose the puck and it was almost like he would say to himself, ‘OK, When do I need to start skating to catch this guy?’ Whereas I had to start skating right away. Just to see the confidence matched with that speed. It was evident he was a special player right away.”
The teenage model of Karlsson was clean, dynamic and assured. And in hindsight, the defenseman attributes that early success to the truth that Alfredsson and his spouse, Bibbi, invited him to dwell with their household.
“I didn’t have any life experience,” Karlsson mentioned. “That gave me a sense of stability. When you have someone take care of you like that, it allows you to be yourself. I was a little bit wild and it gave me a sense of comfort to be myself and do what I wanted hockey-wise.”
The Alfredssons — who had younger sons — merely adopted Karlsson as one other member of their brood. They cooked meals for him, helped with laundry and transportation, and dealt with any logistical situation that got here up.
“I didn’t know how things needed to be done,” Karlsson mentioned. “They did a lot of things for me that I didn’t even realize they were doing.”
Alfredsson — who’s 17 years older than Karlsson — admits he embraced a fatherly position along with his teammate.
“I was closer to his dad in age than him,” Alfredsson mentioned. “He was awesome to be around. And I think he meant more to me than anybody else in the family.”
Teammates seen the distinctive bond inside their locker room.
“They were like family. Alfie just really cared about Karl,” Kyle Turris mentioned.
“I think Karl really benefitted from having Alfie around,” Jason Spezza added. “He looked up to him, he respected him.”
But this wasn’t a one-way relationship. Alfredsson — nearing the top of his profession — felt a sudden injection of youthful exuberance. During his Hall of Fame induction speech this month, Alfredsson jokingly thanked Karlsson “for reintroducing video games to my life again.”
“He brought that energy and enthusiasm at the end of my career,” Alfredsson mentioned. “When you have kids and family, going on the road isn’t always fun. He made it fun again.”
“Even though it’s a big age difference between us, I think we timed that really well,” Karlsson mentioned. “I think we both benefited from different perspectives. I’m just happy that I got as much time to be friends with him and be his teammate at that point in his career.”
The aggressive nature of the 2 would typically be on the forefront, which barely modified the dynamic of their relationship.
“I think it was more of a father-son relationship at first. But then once Erik established himself, it became a little more like a big brother/little brother thing,” Spezza mentioned.
Senators gamers would typically heat up for video games by enjoying a model of soccer often known as “sewer ball.” Essentially, the gamers would kind a big circle, with the aim of attempting to maintain the ball within the air. If a participant was unable to get to the ball, they’d be out. And the final particular person standing could be the winner.
“With sewer ball, Alfie would always get Karl out,” Turris mentioned with amusing. “And Karl would be all pissed off before our game.”
The Alfredsson-versus-Karlsson desk tennis matches turned must-see occasions behind the Senators’ locker room. The two gamers had a number of the most heated matches, with Alfredsson often rising victorious.
“I think I’ve been close. I might have won the odd one here and there,” Karlsson mentioned. “Here’s the thing with Alfie: If we’re just playing for fun, I had a good chance. But once it’s time to close out a game and it really matters? I can’t say I have a very good record against him.”
Their off-ice chemistry and camaraderie translated into on-ice magic in the course of the 2011-12 season.
The 39-year-old Alfredsson had a renaissance season, accumulating 27 objectives and 59 factors. He notched his four-hundredth profession aim in December, an time beyond regulation winner towards Calgary with a one-time slap shot courtesy of an ideal Karlsson move. Karlsson was the primary participant to embrace Alfredsson after his milestone marker, joyously leaping up and all the way down to have a good time the event.
“I feel like part of the fun for Alfie was being on the ice at the same time as Karl,” Spezza mentioned.
Karlsson went on to seize his first Norris Trophy that season, a outstanding accomplishment for a participant on his entry-level contract.
“I wish I was a few years older and came into this league sooner so we would have had more time together on the ice and be teammates for longer than we were,” Karlsson mentioned. “But we came into each other’s careers at the perfect time.”
Unfortunately for Karlsson and Alfredsson, that season could be the ultimate time they performed collectively for a full season as teammates.
As time was winding down within the second interval of a Feb. 13, 2013, sport in Pittsburgh, Alfredsson was proper subsequent to Karlsson within the Ottawa zone.
Karlsson was hit alongside the boards by Pittsburgh ahead Matt Cooke, the kind of hit you sometimes see dozens of instances over the course of an NHL sport.
The puck squirted free and onto Alfredsson’s stick. The Senators captain collected the puck and made a sensible outlet move out of the zone. Alfredsson began skating at full pace out of his personal zone, however he stopped earlier than hitting the purple line. The whistle had inexplicably been blown and Karlsson was screaming in agony behind him.
“It wasn’t a hard hit, per se. Nobody realized what happened right away, until we saw him jumping up and down on one leg and being injured,” Alfredsson mentioned.
Upon additional examination of the hit, Cooke’s skate blade sliced the again of Karlsson’s unprotected left leg. The harm was catastrophic — a 70 % tear of his Achilles tendon that required surgical procedure. Karlsson — the reigning Norris Trophy winner — was off to a blistering begin to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He scored six objectives in Ottawa’s first 13 video games.
“That was a tough one,” Alfredsson mentioned. “He was in the conversation for the best player in the game.”
It was a devastating harm for a plucky, upstart Senators workforce that abruptly discovered itself with no generational defenseman on their again finish. In a passionate press convention that week, Bryan Murray introduced that Karlsson’s 2012-13 season was over.
“It was a clean cut and recovery is expected to be 100 percent,” Murray mentioned. “But it does mean his year finishes at this time.”
Quietly, nonetheless, Karlsson scoffed on the restoration timeline. He felt like he may come again earlier than the top of the common season — regardless of the shortened 48-game marketing campaign. He educated vigorously, skating on his personal and trying to return far forward of schedule. To the shock of many, the Senators introduced Karlsson would return for his or her April 25 contest in Washington, solely 71 days after the harm. He missed solely 31 regular-season video games.
“I think everybody was shocked, but I know he put a lot of work into it to come back,” Alfredsson mentioned. “His personality, if he sets his mind to something, he’s one of the most impressive people I’ve met.”
In that sport, Karlsson logged 27:11 of ice time and notched a pair of assists. He and Alfredsson teamed as much as present the assists on Sergei Gonchar’s overtime-winner — a aim that sealed an unlikely playoff berth.
“To play the way he did when he came back was impressive,” Alfredsson mentioned. “Was he the same? No. But he was pretty darn good.”
That summer time, Alfredsson left Ottawa to signal with Detroit as a free agent.
Karlsson’s sport was a bit unsteady in his first 12 months with out Alfredsson in his nook for help. Still coping with the consequences of the harm, he additionally wasn’t as dynamic, ending with a minus-15 score and a distant seventh within the Norris Trophy voting.
The subsequent season, Karlsson rebounded to reclaim the Norris Trophy, scoring a career-high 21 objectives and serving to Ottawa with a magical Hamburglar playoff run.
Karlsson’s play would earn him the standing of Norris Trophy runner-up in every of the following two seasons, however the 2016-17 season was arguably his most interesting. With Alfredsson watching from the entrance workplace suite as a senior adviser to hockey operations, Karlsson was dominant at each ends of the ice. And the 2 associates reconnected — albeit in a barely completely different capability.
“One of the things that’s great with Alfie is he’s really good at distinguishing between professional and personal,” Karlsson mentioned. “When he was in the front office, he was working for the organization and the team. So he did what he thought was best for everybody, even though we spoke a lot. If there was ever something personal that came up, I don’t think it would have mattered if he was my coach or he was my GM. We easily separated it.”
Karlsson collected 71 factors in 78 video games in 2016-17, however he saved his greatest work for the playoffs. Remarkably, he performed most of that playoffs with a critical ankle harm — one which required main surgical procedure a number of weeks after the season.
During a run to Game 7 of the convention finals, Karlsson notched 18 factors in 19 video games whereas averaging greater than 28 minutes. He even obtained a vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP regardless of the very fact the Senators didn’t advance to the Stanley Cup Final. He delivered a number of signature moments throughout that run, together with a ridiculous 100-foot saucer move to Mike Hoffman within the collection towards Boston. It was the right demonstration of Karlsson’s easy creativity in massive moments.
“He believed in himself, and that’s one of his biggest attributes as a player,” Alfredsson mentioned.
Following that magical playoff run, nonetheless, Alfredsson left the Senators entrance workplace and Karlsson performed just one extra season in Ottawa earlier than being traded to San Jose. The peak of his six-year run in Ottawa was highlighted by a pair of Norris Trophies — and a pair of devastating accidents.
Karlsson, at 32, is having a renaissance season for the Sharks. He has reinserted himself into the Norris Trophy dialog and is as soon as once more trying just like the flashy, dynamic defenseman who burst onto the scene a decade in the past.
“I know he worked really hard this summer,” Alfredsson mentioned. “He told me it was the first time he really felt the strength in both of his legs.”
As a veteran participant now, Karlsson seems to be again at these early conversations with Alfredsson with a brand new appreciation. He can see that Alfredsson was attempting to push and encourage him in distinctive methods.
“At the time, I thought, ‘I’m just a little kid, and I’m going to do what I want,’” Karlsson mentioned. “But looking back, he obviously helped me more than I helped him. I can see what he means now.”
Alfredsson would love nothing greater than to have a good time yet one more Norris Trophy with Karlsson. This previous summer time, Karlsson was by Alfredsson’s aspect when he bought the telephone name from Lanny McDonald that he was going into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Karlsson has been with Alfredsson every summer time ready for that telephone name.
“This year, it felt like he didn’t put any pressure on it,” Karlsson mentioned. “I just went over to hang out and have a few beers. And whatever happened, happened. We were probably more happy in that moment than Alfie was.”
Karlsson may someday be a part of Alfredsson within the Hockey Hall of Fame, particularly when you think about each defenseman with two Norris Trophies has ultimately obtained the respect. There can be a debate as as to if Karlsson’s No. 65 jersey belongs within the rafters in Ottawa subsequent to Alfredsson’s No. 11. Some will argue that his tenure in Ottawa was too brief or that his departure from the hockey membership was too messy.
Others will level to the 2 Norris Trophies and magical performs and say Karlsson must be honored.
Alfredsson is introduced with the query, with a slight tweak. Would he agree with the next assertion?: Daniel Alfredsson is the best Ottawa Senator in franchise historical past, however no person performed the sport at a better stage in Ottawa than Erik Karlsson.
After taking a second to soak up the query, Alfredsson presents his response.
“Best hockey player to play for Ottawa? Yes. He was one of the best on the planet. He could do stuff that nobody else could do,” Alfredsson mentioned. “I would agree with that statement.”
(Top picture: Jana Chytilova / Freestyle Photo)