For a player to truly understand the process of making the NHL, there has to be full transparency.
The player has to understand what the powers that be are looking at in assessing their development. They have to understand why these things are important. None of the standards they being asked to achieve and the metrics that are being track can seem simply made up.
The standards and metrics need to be reflective of reality.
Linus Karlsson made his NHL debut for the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night and his progression to making the NHL is the perfect tale to explain how this player-centred process now works.
“It’s been a journey for him in his development. He’s had to fight for everything he’s gotten,” Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson told Postmedia on Friday, a day after Karlsson played 11:54 against the Calgary Flames.
It was the crowning moment for a prospect that was originally pretty much an after thought, a player added in a trade that was mostly about the Canucks looking to move on from a prospect — Jonathan Dahlén — rather than add to their stable; Karlsson’s skating had been viewed as so poor he hadn’t been on the Canucks’ draft radar the year before. The Sharks obviously thought that flaw could be worked on and drafted him in the third round in 2018.
Less than a year later, he was flipped to the Canucks for Dahlén. They’d seen enough progression in his first year post-draft that the Canucks’ scouting staff thought he might be worth a shot.
Even then, his path to Vancouver wasn’t direct. He kept playing in the Allsvenskan, the Swedish second division until he was 21. He kept scoring.
His skating still wasn’t great. But somehow, a switch flipped along the way and he saw the gaps in his game and worked his way forward.
“When you talk about guys who have to scrap at every level, here’s a guy,” Johnson said.
In those days, Johnson was running the Canucks’ development program and along with his assistant Chris Higgins, kept in touch with Karlsson and helped guide him forward. In 2021-22, Karlsson stepped up to the Swedish Hockey League and at the age of 21, had an outstanding season, scoring 26 goals and 20 assists, a near point-per-game pace, for Skellefteå. He was the SHL’s rookie of the year.
The time had come for the Canucks to see if he could be a North American pro player. He was signed to an NHL contract for the 2022-23 season, impressed in training camp and then had a strong first season in the AHL, scoring 24 goals for Abbotsford.
“It was very clear at the end of last year of what he needed to do to take the next step,” Johnson said. His skating had come a long way. He had the size.
But the overall package needed more.
“He came back in much better shape, that helped his skating and his endurance to withstand a 35-second shift,” Johnson explained.
His improved fitness meant he was able to do more things every shift, at a higher level of consistency.
“It wasn’t the goals that got our attention, it was his wall play, his battles, his ability to keep pucks alive down low,” Johnson said. “You need guys to be able to come up when the pace comes up. Rather than to have 15,20 seconds and then a drop off, that just doesn’t work. You have to be able to sustain yourself.”
Karlsson making the NHL after all this is also good for the organization, the GM believes.
“It’s great for him but good for our other guys to see that that’s what transfers,” he said.
Karlsson has played a big role in Abbotsford since he arrived a year ago. He’s on the power play. He’s killing penalties.
The Canucks are back home and will host the Seattle Kraken at Rogers Arena on Saturday. Karlsson was returned to Abbotsford on Friday, a sign that Andrei Kuzmenko will be able to play again.
For Karlsson impressed NHL head coach Rick Tocchet. He could yet get another call down the road.
“You’ve got to stay on the gas pedal. I don’t think any of our guys look at their career and say ‘I just hope to play in one game.’ To be an every day player he’s got to continue to work, to work on those details, in a short window you give your coaches a chance to ask for you,” Johnson said of what the message to Karlsson will now be.
“When you open the door, you want your coach to ask for you. When you’ve got people going to bat for you, you keep delivering it,” he added.
“There’s a lot of 80-point guys in the AHL that will never see the light of day. We’re very clear with our prospects when we bring them in we’re not a results-based organization in terms of points, we’re into measurable. With analytics, there’s a lot of things that we can track, but it’s also within those details, where guys can earn their minutes. If you’re a 60 per cent centreman, you’re probably going to be earning another 2.5 minutes because you’re going to be taking faceoffs. And so on.
“Karlsson does things that earn his minutes.”
SICK BAY — Four Abbotsford forwards are set to return from concussions: Johnson said that Vasily Podkolzin was expected to play Friday against the Henderson Silver Knights, his first game since hitting his head on the ice in a Oct. 25 game. Chase Wouters was also expected to return Friday. Abbotsford plays Henderson again Saturday, and Tristen Nielsen stood a good chance of playing. He’s been out nearly two months. And Aidan McDonough, who was hurt several weeks ago, could be back next weekend.
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