Elias Pettersson’s one season in the Swedish Hockey League was a sign of the greatness that was to come. Does Linus Karlsson’s rookie season in the SHL signify the same?
The 19-year-old Pettersson was a beast for the Växjö Lakers, racking up 24 goals and 56 points in 44 games. That was enough not only to lead the SHL in scoring but also to break a 42-year-old SHL record for rookie scoring held by Kent “The Magic Man” Nilsson.
Pettersson then went on to dominate the SHL playoffs, scoring 10 goals and 19 points in just 13 games on the way to the championship, easily the best playoffs by any junior-aged player in SHL history.
As a result, Pettersson won a boatload of hardware to go with the championship: Rookie of the Year, both the SHL and Swedish Forward of the Year, and MVP of both the regular season and playoffs.
That success in Sweden translated to his rookie year in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, where he broke Pavel Bure and Ivan Hlinka’s franchise record for rookie scoring and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. His 28 goals and 66 points led the Canucks in scoring despite missing 11 games with an injury.
If Pettersson’s success in the SHL was a harbinger of his success in the NHL, what does it mean for another Canucks prospect, Linus Karlsson, who just scored more goals than Pettersson in his rookie year in the SHL?
Karlsson's breakout with BIK Karlskoga
The Canucks acquired Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks in 2019 in a trade for prospect Jonathan Dahlen after the latter fell out of favour, a move that wasn’t without controversy. Dahlen was a promising prospect and one of Pettersson’s good friends, but his development with the Utica Comets hit a snag, the relationship between team and player deteriorated, and Dahlen was moved.
Dahlen made his debut with the Sharks this season and got off to a hot start with 14 points in his first 23 games before slowing down as the season progressed and dealing with some injuries. Still, 12 goals and 22 points in 53 games is a decent rookie season.
Karlsson, meanwhile, was a prospect that the Canucks didn’t even have on their draft board in 2018, when he was picked in the third round by the Sharks. More than that, the Canucks’ amateur scouting staff wasn’t even consulted when Benning traded Dahlen for Karlsson.
At the time of the trade, the 19-year-old Karlsson had just 17 points in 48 games in the Allsvenskan, the second-tier Swedish league. At the same age, Dahlen had 25 goals and 44 points in 45 games in the Allsvenskan.
While Karlsson was praised for his intelligent two-way game, his lack of production and question marks surrounding his skating suggested he had limited upside and a low chance of developing into an impactful NHL player.
That has changed a lot over the last three years.
Karlsson’s offensive game in the Allsvenskan blossomed after a trade to BIK Karlskoga during the 2019-20 season. He racked up 18 points in 12 games with Karlskoga after the trade, then had 20 goals and 51 points in 52 games in the 2020-21 season. That was good for eighth in Allsvenskan scoring — Dahlen, incidentally, led the Allsvenskan in scoring that year with 71 points in 45 games.
Add in his postseason scoring and Karlsson had a total of 84 points in 75 games with Karlskoga.
Passing Pettersson in goalscoring
Karlsson likely could have signed directly with the Canucks after his breakout performance with Karlskoga but he stayed in Sweden instead, signing with Skellefteå AIK in the SHL. There, he continued to progress, tallying 46 points in 52 games, good for 9th in the SHL in scoring and first among all rookies.
Most notably, Karlsson surpassed Pettersson’s goal total in his rookie season. Pettersson had 24 goals; Karlsson scored 26.
Karlsson’s finishing touch is one of the best qualities of his game. He has a wicked wrist shot when he has room to use it but he can also score in multiple other ways — deft hands to deke around goaltenders, a quick-release snap shot, a bomb of a one-timer, and great hand-eye coordination to tip pucks while battling in front of the net.
While it was widely reported that Karlsson broke the SHL rookie goalscoring record, that record wasn’t actually held by Pettersson. While Pettersson beat Nilsson’s rookie scoring record, that was just for points. Nilsson actually had more goals than Pettersson, with 28. That’s more than Karlsson as well.
In fact, near as I can tell, there have been five rookies in SHL history with more goals than Karlsson and Pettersson — Patrik Carnbäck (27), Kent Andersson (28), Nilsson (28), Pelle Prestberg (29), and Mikko Lehtonen (30).
Apart from Nilsson, none of those players made a name for themselves in the NHL. One reason might be that they were rookies at much different ages than Nilsson and Pettersson, who were both 19 in their first SHL seasons.
Carnbäck was 21 in his rookie season, Andersson was 22, Prestberg was 22, and Lehtonen was 23. Taking nothing away from their excellent rookie seasons, what they accomplished was much different than what Nilsson and Pettersson did at 19.
That brings us to Karlsson, who is 22.
How does Karlsson compare to other 22-year-olds in the SHL?
That’s the key bit of context when talking about Karlsson passing Pettersson in goals — he was three years older than Pettersson when he did it.
That’s not to take anything away from Karlsson. He had a great season and the jump from the Allsvenskan to the SHL is not always handled so smoothly. It does, however, mean that Canucks fans should likely temper their expectations when it comes to Karlsson’s potential.
That said, those expectations shouldn’t be erased entirely. Karlsson’s 46 points is actually the fifth-best season all-time by a 22-year-old in the SHL. That’s not too shabby. Sure, that’s partly because many talented 22-year-old Swedes have already made the jump to the NHL but not entirely.
One of the players ahead of Karlsson is Håkan Loob, who went on to an excellent NHL career with the Calgary Flames, but that was in the 80’s. More contemporaneous to Karlsson are Kristian Huselius and Mats Zuccarello, both of whom went on to NHL success, with Zuccarello currently still excelling on the first line for the Minnesota Wild.
Huselius and Zuccarello, however, each had over 60 points, scoring at well over a point-per-game pace. How about players who scored at a rate more similar to Karlsson?
Karlsson's closest comparables give him a 50/50 shot
Among those players, there’s a pretty wide range of results. The players with the closest scoring rate to Karlsson at the age of 22 in the SHL in the last 20 years are Sean Bergenheim, Johan Harju, Victor Olofsson, and Toni Rajala. Two of those players went on to play well in the NHL; the other two didn’t make it.
Bergenheim played parts of nine seasons in the NHL and found a niche as a hard-working, frequently-shooting middle-six forward, even though he sometimes drove his coaches batty with his inconsistency.
Olofsson has become a bonafide top-six forward, albeit for the Buffalo Sabres. His defensive game has issues but he’s a legitimate NHL player with one 20-goal season under his belt so far.
Either of those would be excellent outcomes for Karlsson.
Harju, on the other hand, followed up his 22-year-old season with a year in the KHL, then signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played just 10 games in the NHL, spending the rest in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals before bolting back to Sweden.
Rajala never made it to the NHL at all. He spent one season in the AHL in the Edmonton Oilers organization but that was actually at 21 before he played in the SHL. He never returned to North America.
It’s hard to say which outcome is more likely for Karlsson. Does he have a legitimate NHL future like Bergenheim and Olofsson or is he more likely to spend one season in the AHL before returning to Europe like Harju and Rajala?
Most of the players who scored at a slightly lower rate in the SHL than Karlsson at 22 did the latter, like Mikael Johansson, Fredrik Pettersson and Victor Ejdsell. Elias Pettersson’s brother, Emil Pettersson, managed two seasons in the AHL before returning to Sweden.
There’s one other comparable worth a look: Mattias Janmark.
Janmark has some similarities to Karlsson — they can both play at centre or on the wing, were both third-round picks, and both have similar size at 6’1”. Janmark, however, is the speedier player, while Karlsson has a more refined two-way game.
Janmark had 36 points in 55 games as a 22-year-old in the SHL — 10 points fewer than Karlsson. Janmark made the jump directly to the NHL at 23, however, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games with the Dallas Stars.
He’s currently in his seventh season in the NHL and is playing on the third line for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Karlsson could be the cost-controlled depth the Canucks need
If Karlsson can make the NHL as a consistent, everyday player, even as a third-line forward, that would be big for the Canucks. They have had trouble developing depth players of their own, leading to overspending on bottom-six forwards in free agency. Getting someone like Karlsson in the lineup on an entry-level contract would certainly help the bottom line.
Karlsson’s progression has been very encouraging for the Canucks and he now seems like a much more legitimate prospect than he was at the time they traded for him. In addition, he’s a centre, which is a position of weakness in the Canucks’ system. The expectation is that the Canucks will sign Karlsson when his SHL season concludes — he has one year remaining on his contract with Skelleftea but it has an out clause.
That means he’ll be in training camp at the start of next season vying for a spot in the Canucks lineup. It remains to be seen, however, whether that spot will be with the Vancouver Canucks or the Abbotsford Canucks.