Linus Karlsson knew his ice-time odds in crunch time were long Tuesday.
When Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet shortened his bench in the third period — and also played with line combinations and defensive pairings in a desperate attempt to mount a comeback in what would prove a bitter 6-5 loss to the New Jersey Devils — Karlsson had to look, listen and learn.
He had just two shifts in the final period that amounted to 2:02 of his 9:20 total on a fourth line with Swedish countrymen Nils Hoglander and Nils Aman.
And in just his third NHL regular-season game, Karlsson had moments that would resonate with Tocchet. As per the fourth-liner credo — forecheck, frustrate, hit, defend, don’t take a penalty and don’t get scored upon — he checked all the boxes.
He hounded the Devils on the forecheck. He worked the walls effectively and was strong on the backcheck to log a defensive-zone takeaway. He lined up Erik Haula in the neutral zone and impeded his progress with a solid hit.
He made a strong move to the slot to unleash a quick wrist shot for a good scoring chance. He also drew an interference minor by John Marino with a power move through the neutral zone.
Tocchet even saw the right stuff when Karlsson made his regular-season debut on Nov. 15 in Calgary and then faced the Flames there again on Dec. 2.
The AHL is filled with 30-goal gunners who can’t cut it in the NHL because they lack a complete game. Karlsson is building one.
As a rookie facing a tough transition to the North American game, Karlsson led Abbotsford Canucks forwards in scoring last season with 24 goals and 49 points. It came a year after he lit it up in the Swedish Elite League with 46 points (26-20) as a first-year pro with Skelleftea — including breaking Elias Pettersson’s rookie mark.
“I’m not surprised,” Karlsson told Postmedia. “I know I’ve got it in me. It was fun. I’ve played against men for a long time, so it was new for me.”
The biggest knock has been Karlsson’s speed and strength. He doesn’t have those initial strong strides, but is now getting up to speed quicker. And he doesn’t get overwhelmed in puck and board battles.
Tocchet even deployed Karlsson in the late stages of a 4-3 win in Calgary on Dec.2.
“I like the fact he’s a guy our organization needs,” said Tocchet. “He is a sticky guy and I put him out with two minutes left against Calgary. And if his job is to get to the wall and get into a defenceman, he’ll do it.
“It was out 25 seconds and he cleared the puck and came right off. I like that. He’s a guy you owe. We have to see what we’ve got. We can’t be afraid to play him and give him some games.”
Karlsson, 24, isn’t at the career crossroads, but he is in the final portion of a two-year, two-way contract that carries a US$925,000 salary cap hit in the NHL. He’s done the work and should get more looks this season as Tocchet tinkers with where his roster is heading in the off-season.
The Canucks know that to understand where Karlsson can go means looking at where he has been.
When winger Jonathan Dahlen wanted out of Vancouver, it was Karlsson who couldn’t wait to get in. It also provided plenty of fodder for speculation about what went wrong with Dahlen, a 2016 second-round draft pick, and what Karlsson’s potential could be. He was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the third round of the 2018 NHL draft.
A trade request by Dahlen’s agent shipped the centre to San Jose in 2019 in that return for Karlsson. It created a buzz of the player’s insistence that he didn’t want out, despite never playing an NHL regular-season game for the Canucks.
At the time, Canucks management called it a “lateral move.” Now, you can call it a smart one.
After all, Karlsson made a lasting first impression at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton. His adjustment to the North American ice surface was immediate.
He went from looking like he was stickhandling in a phone booth to finding time and space after just one period.
“He’s very crafty with the puck,” Abbotsford head coach Jeremy Colliton said of his first impressions. “He finds a way to give himself some space. He’s got a heavy stick and there was a shift where he just kept coming up with the puck — stripping guys and creating three or four chances on his own.
“And he’s making some plays, he’s not just a scorer, but there’s going to be an adjustment here as the level goes up.”
Karlsson knew that and has put in the time and effort. And that’s intriguing to Tocchet.
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