There have been many players to burst onto the scene this season as All-Stars. James Neal and Jonathan Quick are two of the many. However, two others have caught our eye here in the 2011-12 campaign as the biggest breakouts. Erik Karlsson By Ryan Porth
There are offensive defensemen, and then there is Erik Karlsson.
Despite being selected to the All-Star Game last season, Karlsson has taken a quantum leap to being a star NHL blue-liner. The 21-year-old Swede has 76 points in 76 games, good for eighth-most in the league. He also leads all defensemen in points with a whopping 25 points to spare.
Plus/minus can sometimes be a misconstrued statistic – but sometimes it can be too glaring to ignore. Karlsson was a minus-30 last year. Yes, he posted that on a bad Ottawa Senators team but there wasn’t much consistency in his game as he was still a raw talent.
Currently ranked in the top 10 in ice-time, Karlsson is seeing almost two more minutes of action per game than he did a season ago. A lot of that has to do with his maturity and absurd offensive production, becoming the youngest defensemen to reach the 70-point mark since Brian Leetch back in 1988-89.
Also, it hasn’t been since that season that there has been this kind of stranglehold on the NHL lead in points from defensemen. Florida’s Brian Campbell is currently second in the NHL with 51 points. Karlsson’s 25-point margin since Edmonton’s Paul Coffey held a 38-point lead in 1988-89.
There has been some debate as to whether Karlsson deserves to be the Norris Trophy winner. Fellow defensemen Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo and Zdeno Chara (among others) are having better all-around seasons, but it’s hard to argue against Karlsson.
Karlsson is an offensive dynamo from the blue-line, a player that the surprising Senators couldn’t do without this season. The smooth-skating rearguard is second on the team in points, first in power play points and has unquestionably been the team’s most valuable player.
There’s no way the Senators would be a playoff team without Karlsson. In one year he made the jump from being a defenseman with nice potential to a defenseman that is one of the best and more exciting in the league.
Joffrey Lupul's last few years in the NHL have not been easy. After being selected in the first round of the 2002 draft, he'd done just fine in his first few pro seasons, putting up at least 45 points in three of his first five seasons between Anaheim, Edmonton, and Philadelphia.
But things took a turn in the 2009-10 after Lupul developed major complications from what should have been a routine back surgery. He developed a blood infection and couldn't seem to shake it, no matter how much treatment he received. He played just 23 games that season, and the blood infections had him thinking about retirement at the tender age of 26.
In his first full season back from injury (2010-11) he was traded mid-year to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Still regaining the strength he'd lost while sick (he lost over 40 pounds while fighting his infections), his season was pretty unremarkable.
But this year, Lupul surprised much of the hockey world with his incredible performance. Unfortunately, Lupul separated his shoulder a few weeks ago, ending his season, but in his 66 games played this year he racked up 67 points (25g-42a). It's a career high in assists and points.
Much of his performance can be attributed to his chemistry with linemate Phil Kessel, who himself had a great year with 77 points on the season. For Lupul, playing with a consistent linemate was a new thing -- and ended up being a great thing for both players. "I've never really been on a team with the same linemates for this long probably," Lupul said of Kessel in January. "You definitely develop some comfort with the guy."
The duo quickly became known as one of the most dangerous in the NHL. "As soon as (Lupul and Kessel) get some room, it's a disaster waiting to happen," Detroit Red Wing Niklas Kronwall said.
The two breathed some life into Toronto's fan base, who have been desperate for a winning team for several years. The Maple Leafs won't make the playoffs again this year, but Kessel and Lupul provide a ray of hope for the future of the franchise.
Lupul's story is an amazing one, and it's a thrilling turnaround for the 28-year-old winger. It's for that reason he's considered one of the biggest "breakout" players of the year, and also why he's Toronto's candidate for the Masterton Trophy. Lupul's season turned out as no one expected, and with his infections long behind him, it can only get better from here.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.