Many letters have been spilled about how Erik Karlsson has been struggling as a member of the San Jose Sharks. Ahead of meeting the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday, talk has elevated once more.

Unpacking it is initially a matter of numbers.

Karlsson has eight points in 19 games with San Jose. No goals. Only three of his points have come during five-on-five play.

That is, bar none, his least productive start since joining the league as a 19-year-old. He has 54 shots on goal and that seems to be where things tilt, at least if you’re the Sharks.

Karlsson is fifth overall among defencemen in shot attempt differential and his chance metrics are high in his position, which suggests that he is making his team better when he’s on the ice.

The Sharks are first in the Pacific Division ahead of Thursday’s contest against Toronto. They hold a 10-6-3 record and are 5-3-2 in their last 10. They’ve scored a noble 61 goals and allowed 59 goals against. Karlsson is a minus-9 and he’s doing well over 20 minutes a game on most nights. Against Nashville on November 13, he had 25 shifts for 24:39 of ice time.

The argument for or against Karlsson can be slanted rather easily. Don’t like him? Mention the fact that he has no points and hasn’t been a John Tavares-like impact player for the Sharks. Like him? Quote deeper metrics, go all-out on advanced statistics and state, like head coach Peter DeBoer would say, that Karlsson is producing as advertised.

“A lot of very good things are going on, it just hasn’t resulted in points on the scoresheet yet. That’s around the corner, trust me on that,” said DeBoer. “We’re going to sit and have this conversation and you guys will forget everything you’ve written in the last month and say ‘I knew it was coming.’ Like you always do.”

“I mean, he’s a world-class player, the things that he can do, it’s incredible,” said defenceman Brent Burns. “I think it takes time for everyone else to really know what he’s doing; he’s thinking the game on a different level. I think he’s making plays that are great, and it’s a different system, too. It takes time, but he’s going through it, and he’s doing well.”

Make no mistake, the Sharks are in a must-win mode. Protecting their players at all costs is the job of the coach because nobody knows what’s going to happen next season. Karlsson, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and a handful of RFAs are on borrowed time, so to speak.

Things can swing in a different direction next season altogether, especially if the Cup isn’t raised in San Jose, and that puts Karlsson’s performance or lack thereof into interesting perspective. For many, it’s easy to look at this situation and call the defenceman a bust – so far.

As the Toronto Maple Leafs suit up to meet San Jose Thursday, they haven’t had to defend their star acquisition. Tavares is on a tear and the numbers are telling the story, without looking deeper to analytics.

For the Sharks, they’re hoping more reflective accounting reveals the truth about Karlsson before long. And all the while, they will stand by their man.

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