For a player who has yet to play hockey in North America or attend a single training camp with Vancouver, Linus Karlsson’s name is already well-known among those who follow Canucks prospects—and it has everything to do with how he became part of the organization.
At the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, GM Jim Benning flipped the popular and mercurial Jonathan Dahlen—in the midst of a solid AHL rookie campaign—to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Karlsson, a much less-heralded prospect. The reaction of the fanbase was far from positive, and that’s putting it mildly.
Now, a scant few months later and the situation has greatly changed. Karlsson still hasn’t left Sweden, but Dahlen has gone back already, leaving the San Jose Barracuda to return to Timra of the Allsvenskan. That may not close the book entirely on Dahlen’s NHL future, but it certainly helps to take the sting out of an unpopular transaction.
Karlsson, on the other hand, remains a middling prospect—coming in at #20 on our annual ranking of Vancouver Canucks prospects. At the very least, there’s reason to believe that Karlsson now stands a better chance of carving out an eventual NHL career than Dahlen given their individual circumstances—though it’s undeniable that Linus still has a ways to go before he joins the contingent of successful Karlssons in the big league.
In keeping with past lists, we’re considering a prospect to be any player who is 25 years of age or younger and who has played less than 25 regular season games at the NHL level. This is a slightly modified and simplified version of the qualifications for the Calder Trophy.
As of the 2018/19 season, both Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette have graduated from prospect status.
By The Numbers
|Karlskrona J20/ SuperElit||2018/19||1||0||2||2||0||2|
|Karlskrona HK/ Allsvenskan||2018/19||52||5||13||18||59||7|
The 2018/19 season was Linus Karlsson’s second with the Karlskrona organization, but the first in which he spent the majority of his time with their men’s team. Though the franchise played in the SHL in 2017/18, they were demoted to the Allsvenskan as of last year—making for a slightly easier pro rookie campaign for the 87th overall draft pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
With that being said, Karlsson’s numbers were still fairly impressive for a 19-year-old playing against men. His point totals may not have been anything to write home about, but they were also good enough to rank ninth on the Karlskrona roster—and fourth in the entire Allsvenskan amongst players under 20.
Karlsson’s penalty minutes are also eye-catching—and might suggest the sort of well-rounded game that could translate well to North American ice whenever he makes the transition. On that front, there’s also some statistical reason for optimism.
Jeremy Davis’ Prospect Graduation Probabilities System—or pGPS for short—is a similarity-based program that seeks to analyze players’ statistical outputs across various leagues and age groups, with the ultimate goal of categorizing those players into cohorts alongside previous prospects in order to predict their likelihood of eventual success.
Davis’ system has grown since its inception, and now encompasses up to nine statistical inputs—including a player’s size, era-adjusted projection, and point share—to spit out percentage-based odds on an individual’s likelihood of success, and their likely degree of success, at the NHL level.
Davis’ cohort map for Karlsson consists of a fairly healthy cohort of 81 individuals, and it still paints a picture of long—but not impossible—odds for Karlsson making it to the big leagues. His overall percentages—a 4% expected likelihood of success and just a 1.5% chance of playing a top-six role in the NHL—are admittedly a little underwhelming for a recent third-round pick, but they’re also a fair bit better than some of the other prospects featured higher in our rankings.
In other words, the 19-year-old Karlsson remains a longshot prospect but is not without the potential for an NHL future—for reasons that we’re about to get into in detail.
Linus Karlsson had always demonstrated his offensive potency across numerous Swedish junior leagues—occasionally flirting with a scoring rate of two points per game—but he didn’t hit NHL radars until his draft season of 2017/18.
Karlsson spent the majority of that year playing for the Karlskrona HK J20 team in the SuperElit junior league—where he notched an impressive 52 points in 42 games. His scoring pace declined in the playoffs, however, with just four points across six disappointing games for his team. Still, Karlsson’s season was impressive enough to be named Forward of the Year.
As an 18-year-old, Karlsson was also called up to play 13 regular season games in the SHL for Karlskrona—though he only picked up a single assist. He also dressed for a single SHL playoff game at the end of the year, but went pointless.
The 2017/18 season also saw Karlsson earn some time on the international stage—scoring six points in just four games for the Swedish under-19 team. All of this led to the San Jose Sharks going a little off the board to select Karlsson in the third round—87th overall—in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
Unfortunately, Karlsson’s chances of playing in the SHL the following season were dashed when Karlskrona was relegated to the Allsvenskan—Sweden’s second-highest professional league—at the conclusion of the 2017/18. After playing just one more game at the junior level, however—in which he put up two points—it was clear that Karlsson was ready to play with men on a full-time basis.
Amidst his fairly all-around skillset, Karlsson brings a handful of more unique traits to the table that correlate well with success as a professional hockey player. He has a reasonably-sized frame that he knows how to use, and he’s able to parlay that into promising shooting positions—from which he can unleash his shot, one of his greatest assets. He seems particularly adept at reading the play to find and fill seams in the opposing defense—and tends to do his best work deep in the offensive zone.
His hockey sense and puck-handling are described as above-average, but nothing special, and his skating remains—if not exactly a hindrance—an area in which he needs to continually improve.
Most prominent in scouting reports about Karlsson are mention of his high character and tenacious attitude—both attributes that have been greatly valued under the Jim Benning regime in Vancouver.
As previously mentioned, those traits allowed for Karlsson to have a successful rookie campaign in the Allsvenskan—one that measured up well against his peers and no doubt caught the attention of the Canucks’ scouting staff.
However, it’s also arguable that Karlsson’s 2018/19 seasons didn’t see him make enough of a leap forward to solidify his future as a likely NHLer—and that’s what San Jose was probably thinking when they decided to flip him for the cantankerous Jonathan Dahlen. From a directly comparative standpoint, Dahlen’s own production in the Allsvenskan—44 points as a 19-year-old in 45 games—blows Karlsson’s out of the water.
That notion is also backed up by Jeremy Davis’ Year-to-Year pGPS chart—which shows just how much Karlsson’s odds of making it to the NHL dipped after what was still a strong rookie season by other measures:
There are still those within Karlsson’s cohort who have gone on to fill important roles at the NHL level—including Mikael Backlund and Lars Eller—but at this point, it’s tough to say that the odds aren’t stacked against him.
If there’s a brighter side to be identified from Karlsson’s 2018/19 season, it probably comes from what he did after being acquired by the Vancouver Canucks—namely, what he accomplished in the playoffs.
Karlsson played alright in the Allsvenskan playoffs, though he only notched a single point for Karlskrona in what proved to be a disappointing and short-lived bid for promotion to the SHL. That led to Karlsson being sent down for one last playoff run in the SuperElit, where he scored five points in four games—proving that the offensive punch he showed in junior hasn’t gone anywhere.
One has to hope that Karlsson’s playoff success will springboard him to a major step forward with Karlskrona HK in 2019/20—where Karlsson stands to spend the entirety of the season in the Allsvenskan. If his numbers don’t take a massive leap, it will likely mean the end of his already dwindling chances of NHL success—but if they do, Karlsson is still more than young enough to start climbing the Vancouver depth chart and start garnering recognition as a more legitimate NHL prospect.