From no goalie coach to NHL in five years for Calgary’s Karlsson
It never takes Henrik Karlsson long to leave a lasting impression.
The only thing harder than missing the 6-foot-6 Swedish stopper on the ice is trying to find the net behind him. Evidently Calgary noticed him too, because after acquiring the 26-year-old from San Jose at this summer’s draft for just a sixth-round draft pick, the Flames signed Karlsson to a one-way contract worth $500,000, quickly ending his prior plans to spend the season in Russia’s KHL, all but ensuring the job as Miikka Kiprusoff’s backup this year.
Not bad for a goalie who just two seasons ago was playing second-division hockey in his home country. Karlsson didn’t even make the jump to the top-level Swedish Elite League until midway through that season, playing seven games as backup to now-Toronto sophomore Jonas Gustavsson before taking over as Farjestads’ No. 1 last year, posting a 2.45 goals against and .914 save percentage in 34 games.
Karlsson has continued to make a good impression so far in Calgary, following up several spectacular stops during the annual red-white scrimmage on Monday with a steady display of positioning and poise while stopping all 12 shots over two periods in his NHL pre-season debut Tuesday, a 3-1 victory in Vancouver.
Calgary coach Brent Sutter praised Karlsson for quiet-but-quick movements in the crease, and for coming out to challenge on the few occasions he needed to. But after a night when not a lot of highlight-reel saves were required, Karlsson was at his most impressive post-game, when he revealed to inGoalMag.com that he had only been working with a “real, modern” goalie coach for five seasons.
No wonder he was unheralded. He didn’t learn how to play goal until he was 21.
“It was pretty late,” shrugged Karlsson. “But that really changed my play.”
Karlsson credits Pierre Mocka, the goalie coach at second-division Hammarby, for a transformation that included learning simple things like proper leg recovery from the butterfly – a technique most kids half that age would typically be taught at most goalie summer camps in North America. Karlsson said he’s had good coaching since, specifically singling out Farjestad’s Erik Granqvist.
“It was really basic stuff we started to work on,” Karlsson said of those first sessions with Mocka. “I had done a little bit but not regular. You have to do it a little bit every day, repetition. But it’s ever too late to learn.”
With improved technique has come the consistency he lacked at a younger age.
“It put my game together much better, technique to use my size better,” Karlsson said. “I always had talent but you need to also have the technique to be able to play. I was more up and down the years before I really started to work on my technique. I could have an awesome game and then play really bad.”
There are far fewer of the latter now that Karlsson knows how to use his massive frame effectively. The addition of more efficient butterfly movements allows him to recover laterally without having to get back to his skates first, and he does so quickly (partly because he plays deeper, leaving less distance to get his long legs across, but also because his butterfly is a bit narrow and therefore requires less hip rotation) while maintaining strong vertical angles by staying upright. He takes pucks to the body efficiently, rarely spilling rebounds, and uses shoulders and elbows effectively rather than always relying on his hands.
“My short play and down game is much better now,” he said. “The new technique is perfect for a big guy. You must do it like that now, playing the percentages.”
All that said Karlsson believes there are still advantages to learning about those percentages at such a late age. Where some lesser North American coaches may have turned him into a puck-blocking robot, Karlsson had to teach himself to make saves, and it shows on the rare occasions he needs to scramble. He was also forced to rely on reflexes, which shows up in some great reactive glove and blocker saves when needed.
“I would say it was an advantage because I learned to react on my own and you still have to be able to do that in games,” he said. “A couple of times during games you have to be able to think quick and do something outside the technique. So I learned my own way to stop the puck before and now I learned much better technique but I still have maybe something left in my old school of game.”
That Karlsson has incorporated so much of the modern butterfly into his game in such a short time bodes well for the other adjustments he’ll need to make going from the pass-first, shoot-never Swedish leagues, to the crash-and-bang NHL.
“It’s a lot more traffic on every shot,” he said of the early differences. “They are in front of me every time, so you have to work harder to see the puck all the time here, and more pucks to the net all the time here. Like if the rebound goes in the corner, the puck will still come back. You have to work harder. You have to work to see the puck all the time and work to be ready for the rebound, and the players are skillful, quick. But I like the small rink though, I think every big goalie will agree that it suits the big goalies to play on smaller rinks and not so much the side-to-side of the much bigger European rinks.”
While most focus on the changing angle of those smaller North American rinks, Karlsson echoes his predecessors in saying the biggest adjustment is how quickly the puck gets to the net off the boards. Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom said he had “time to do sit ups” when the play was along the wall in Europe, but like Backstrom before him, Karlsson already recognizes there’s no time to relax here.
“You realize quickly when you come here that the puck will come to the net from everywhere. You have to notice it quick or you’re not going to play in this league, so you have to adjust and be ready,” he said. “I have to shorten my movements a little bit and if I do that I think it can be good. It’s more short push and stop and be square to the puck here. In Europe it’s more east-west and around and be patient and a lot more movement for a big guy. But here it’s more pushing, shorter, quicker movements, not so long movements. Around the net also I have to shorten my movements because they are quicker and getting the puck in front and shooting, so you have to be quick on the short, bang-bang plays.”
Karlsson was critical of how he played – or more to the point, didn’t play – the puck in his NHL debut on Monday. Of course that may be safer considering countryman and Canucks prospect Eddie Lack was penalized for retrieving a puck in the corner and stick-handling it back through the no-play zone in the other half of Tuesday’s split-squad home-and-away against Calgary. But Karlsson was happy about finding a balance between using his size to see over screens at times, and not leaving himself vulnerable low by doing so on other plays.
“When they are up and pretty close to the blueline then I think it’s perfect to look over because I know I still have enough time,” Karlsson said of working while shorthanded. “But when they come closer you have to fight around it.”
That eagerness to keep learning makes Karlsson a rookie worth watching. For such a late bloomer, it’s that opportunity to keep improving that excites him most.
“I’ll keep working and that’s giving me energy because I can get better,” said Karlsson. “I think I’m pretty good now but I think I can be even better.”