It was just a matter of time. After his rookie-of-the-year season in the SHL, Linus Karlsson has been signed to an entry-level contract by the Vancouver Canucks.
Karlsson needed to be signed before June 1 or he would become a free agent and the Canucks would risk losing him to another team. For Karlsson, there’s no guarantee that another NHL team would sign him, so there was incentive on both sides to get a deal done.
The only thing that was potentially delaying the signing was that Karlsson was with the Swedish national team ahead of the IIHF World Championship and was being kept in reserve in case they needed him. When Sweden was able to add several NHL players from eliminated teams, such as William Nylander, Carl Grundstrom, and Jacob Peterson, Karlsson was left on the outside looking in.
So, with the World Championship quarterfinals still being played, Karlsson was available to sign on the dotted line with the Canucks, doing so in a very tastefully-appointed kitchen with a delightful backsplash.
"We are excited to officially welcome Linus to Vancouver," said Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin in a press release. "He is a good goal scorer who plays a solid two-way game, and he is coming off an impressive rookie season in Sweden. We look forward to seeing him develop his game in North America."
Karlsson is coming off a fantastic season with Skellefteå AIK in the SHL, scoring 26 goals and 46 points in 52 games to lead all rookies. That’s more goals than Elias Pettersson scored in his rookie year in the SHL, though Pettersson was 19 at the time and Karlsson is 22.
It’s been a stunning ascension for Karlsson. According to sources, Karlsson wasn’t even on the Canucks’ draft list when the San Jose Sharks took him in the third round of the 2018 draft. In his first season in the Allsvenskan — Sweden’s second-tier men’s league — Karlsson didn’t look like a prospect with much of a future, putting up just 18 points in 52 games and struggling to keep pace as the speed of the game picked up.
Two trades made all the difference.
First was the trade from the Sharks to the Canucks, where Karlsson entered a system with limited centre depth that desperately needed a two-way pivot with untapped potential. Then there was the trade in the 2019-20 season from Karlskrona HK to BIK Karlskoga.
Karlsson exploded after the trade to Karlskoga, racking up 18 points in just 12 games as he was given opportunities to play on the first line and the top power play unit.
He continued to blossom the following season, with 20 goals and 51 points in 52 games for Karlskoga, then a stunning 8 goals and 15 points in 11 games in the Allsvenskan playoffs. That led to an SHL contract and his breakthrough rookie season.
While the odds are still long for Karlsson to become a legitimate NHL player, Karlsson has been routinely defying the odds over the past several years.
Karlsson has an array of offensive skills, including an NHL-caliber shot that he uses to score in a multitude of ways but it’s his intelligent two-way game that is most likely to land him a spot in the Canucks’ lineup in the future. He has excellent defensive habits and played the penalty kill as an SHL rookie with Skellefteå.
“They’ve believed in me from the first [game]. I’ve never played the penalty kill before and they said you’re going to play penalty kill. I love that,” said Karlsson to Postmedia’s Mike Raptis. “They believe in me here and I play everything. They’ve given me confidence from the start and I’ve built on that.”
The one major question mark for Karlsson is his skating, where he lacks some of the explosiveness needed to keep pace in the NHL. Without that in his game, it will be tougher for Karlsson to jump into holes in the offensive zone to create offence or keep up with opposing forwards defensively. Being a step late to pucks and battles in the NHL can be debilitating.
Karlsson has taken steps in this area, however, particularly since his draft year.
“The thing [the Canucks] want me to improve is my skating, but they were happy this season because they saw some big stats,” said Karlsson. “I can still work on it, but they think I’ve improved a lot.”
With Karlsson’s ability to play at centre or on the wing, he’ll have a good opportunity to prove himself at training camp and potentially make the Canucks’ opening night roster. Karlsson is notably a right-handed centre, something the Canucks were missing this past season. While Karlsson didn't take a ton of faceoffs for Skellefteå, he was effective when he did, winning 56.94% of his draws.
Even if Karlsson can't make the Canucks out of camp, he’ll just be a short drive down the road in Abbotsford, where the Canucks have a dedicated skating coach.