Yohe: Pittsburgh’s Erik Karlsson already feels at home with the Penguins


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PITTSBURGH — News conferences are usually stuffy occasions. There are microphones, tables on stages, cameras, a handful of predictable questions and typically a few awkward answers. It’s a lot of spotlight, a lot of intensity, and nerves are usually immediately evident.

In the aftermath of Erik Sven Gunnar Karlsson’s introduction to Pittsburgh — even his name is cool — I wonder if he’s ever felt nervous for a moment in his life.

The always chatty Karlsson entered the media room on ice level at PPG Paints Arena at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday. While walking to the stage, he looked at the gathered media, smiled and said: “Hi everybody. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.”

The reigning Norris Trophy winner has a conversational way about him, and make no mistake, personality matters. More to the point, confidence matters. Even when you’re an all-time great, joining the Penguins is no small matter. This isn’t San Jose. When you walk into that dressing room in training camp, Sidney Crosby will be there with a big “C” on his chest. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will be there, too. Mike Sullivan will be your coach. You’ll see the pictures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, which serve as delightful artwork as well as an intimidating image of the standard in Pittsburgh. Karlsson will see the Stanley Cup banners, something his previous franchises never boasted (with all due respect to the 1927 Ottawa Senators, of course).

Some Hall of Famers, Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla among them, enjoyed their time in Pittsburgh but never felt comfortable here. Especially in Iginla’s case, he was too passive, too polite to assert himself because he knew he was surrounded by greatness.

One can’t say the same about Phil Kessel, of course. Kessel showed up in Pittsburgh in 2015 and played the character of Phil Kessel to perfection. He didn’t particularly concern himself with what his coaches had to say, nor did he show any eagerness to force-feed the puck to Crosby and Malkin. Nah, he was just Kessel. And it worked beautifully.

Karlsson is much different than Kessel on the surface. There was no news conference when Kessel was acquired primarily because he didn’t want one. There is one striking similarity, though. Much like Kessel, the 33-year-old Karlsson carries himself in such a way that I don’t think he’ll be deferring to anyone. He’s coming to Pittsburgh to run the power play, and he knows it. He’s coming to Pittsburgh to freelance and color outside the box in the very manner that makes him special and an all-time great, and he knows it. He’s showing up to be Karlsson, just as Kessel was showing up to be Kessel.

We’ll see how it works on the ice, but the early impressions of Karlsson — and some whispers from those who know him well — make it clear that he’s supremely confident without being arrogant and isn’t going to be in awe of his Hall of Fame teammates. Rather, he may have located some partners to run with.

“I was very excited about the opportunity to go somewhere I could be on a team where we’re contending,” Karlsson said.

He was slightly guarded when answering a question about this summer and how much power he had in the Penguins’ trade with San Jose and Montreal. Karlsson didn’t want to come across as someone who dictated his destination and confirmed that he never gave Sharks general manager Mike Grier a list of teams.

The considerable joy he feels being in Pittsburgh, however, was difficult to contain.

“It was exciting when I heard they were interested,” Karlsson said. “I’m happy it worked out in the end.”

Karlsson touched on a number of topics:

• Any relationship issues he had playing with Brent Burns in San Jose were overblown, Karlsson said.

Much has been made of how he will co-exist with another star, Letang, on the blue line.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” he said. “I don’t think we (Karlsson and Burns) had a strained relationship. We’re actually pretty good friends, personally.”

• Karlsson said he will be comfortable in Pittsburgh because there is familiarity.

He knows fellow Swede Rickard Rakell. He played in San Jose last season with new pickup Matt Nieto. He is friends with recently added forward Andreas Johnsson.

Karlsson also noted he’s gotten to know Crosby, Malkin and Letang at various NHL All-Star Games over their careers.

• Karlsson sounds quite excited to play for Sullivan.

The coach, it should be noted, also sounds quite excited to coach Karlsson.

San Jose coach David Quinn is very close friends with Sullivan. They’re so close, in fact, that Quinn was in attendance last weekend when Sullivan’s daughter, Kylie, married Bruins star Charlie McAvoy in Boston.

Sullivan confirmed he’s spoken with Quinn about Karlsson and is particularly looking forward to coaching him. Quinn is a big Karlsson fan, and Sullivan has a history of bringing out the best in highly talented players.

“I didn’t really make the connection between (Sullivan) and David Quinn until I talked to Sully,” Karlsson said. “They sound the same, Boston guys. They have similar backgrounds, (which) will make it a little bit easier.”

Karlsson knows Pittsburgh pretty well. He’s played in the Eastern Conference for most of his career and on three occasions — 2010, 2013 and 2017 — his Senators fell to the Penguins in playoff series.

Karlsson sounded very much like a Pittsburgher when explaining that he’s been to PNC Park, he’s golfed at Oakmont and that he finds Pittsburgh to be “hilly, green and beautiful.”

It’s been quite an offseason for the Penguins, and Karlsson is a cherry on top. Maybe it’s his personality or maybe it’s the reality that the greatest offensive defenseman of his generation is now employed by the team that has scored more goals than any NHL team in the past 35 years, but whatever the reason, Karlsson seems particularly at ease in Pittsburgh.

“I’m very happy,” he said with a smile.

Or maybe it’s this. On Monday, Sullivan spoke with The Athletic in Boston. As he often does, he spoke admirably of Crosby, Malkin and Letang.

“Those guys,” Sullivan said, “I’m telling you, they just want to win. It’s what drives them. Not the individual awards or attention. They just want to win. I admire that about them.”

Karlsson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an icon in Sweden, a legend in Ottawa, one of the greats of all time. But he’s never won the Stanley Cup.

“They know how to do that,” Karlsson said of the Penguins’ Big Three. “You have to help each other out, push each other there. That’s something they’ve been very good at here for a long time.”

The Penguins don’t showcase the Big Three anymore. Now it’s the Big Four.

“I want to win,” Karlsson said, echoing what Crosby, Malkin and Letang always tell their coach.

Karlsson’s game is uniquely beautiful and unpredictable. His smile is mischievous. You can’t help but notice him because everything about him is a little different.

What drives him, however, is precisely what drives his Hall of Fame teammates.

Suddenly, though questions admittedly remain, the stale feeling that hovered over the Penguins last season has been eliminated faster than a Karlsson breakout. The man looked very much at home.

(Photo: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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