There was a time that William Karlsson felt on top of the hockey world. It was October 2014, and the 21-year-old center was a rookie for the Anaheim Ducks. The Swede had just made the move to North America, and as a 2011 second-round draft pick he wasn't sure he'd make the roster out of training camp. "So," his agent, Michael Deutsch, texted him after final cuts. "Did you make the team?"
"I don't know," Karlsson replied. "But I'm on the plane to Pittsburgh."
A week later, Karlsson netted two goals against the Buffalo Sabres in his second-ever NHL game. The next night, in Philadelphia, the Ducks entered a shootout against the Flyers. In the eighth round, Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau was looking for a left-handed shot to go against goalie Steve Mason. He turned to Karlsson because, as he would tell reporters later, "he was the guy I thought would be the hottest." Karlsson scored the winner and was mobbed by teammates. He was riding high. His NHL career could not be off to a better start.
Karlsson recorded just one point (an assist) in his next 13 games. In mid-November, he fell ill. It was a terrible bug that put him in the hospital for two days. Karlsson lost about 12 pounds. When he was released, the team sent him to the minors.
Karlsson didn't take the demotion too well. He knew he could produce at the NHL level, but he couldn't pull himself out of a funk. He would be recalled, then sent down, recalled, then sent down, and never fully found a rhythm. At the trade deadline, he was shipped to Columbus in a trade involving defenseman James Wisniewski.
It was a total shock for Karlsson, still wading through the NHL transition. He loved the Ducks organization, was close to fellow Swede Rickard Rakell, and enjoyed living in Southern California. The Blue Jackets started Karlsson in the minors. Still in a slump, he recorded zero points in 15 games with Springfield. Karlsson would play only three games for Columbus that spring, tallying a goal and assist, but left his first NHL season knowing he wanted -- and was capable of -- so much more.
As the Vegas Golden Knights continue their improbable tear, it's hard not to identify a player like Karlsson -- who led the team (and was third in the NHL) with 43 goals -- as a catalyst. Sure, the NHL awarded Vegas a more favorable format than any expansion team ever, but it was up to general manager George McPhee and his team of scouts to identify the right players who would thrive in the opportunity.
Perhaps no one exemplifies that better than Karlsson, a highly regarded prospect from Sweden, who never found his footing in his first two NHL stops. Karlsson, ironically nicknamed "Wild Bill" by coaches in Anaheim (despite trademark shoulder-length blond flow, his temperament is quite mild), finally lived up to the billing in Vegas -- because Vegas allowed him to play the game as he preferred.
Karlsson led all Vegas forwards in ice time: 18:43 minutes per game, greater than a five-minute jump from last season. The 25-year-old was just as important on the penalty kill -- among forwards, he was second to specialist Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in ice time, plus had 12 takeaways and a team-high four shorthanded goals -- as the power play, where, you guessed it, he manned the first unit and led all forwards in minutes. Yes, his shooting percentage was astronomically high -- a 23.4 percent rate that was league high among skaters with at least 50 games -- but while everyone waited for a regression, Karlsson sustained it all season, chasing Alex Ovechkin for the scoring title into March.
Karlsson, who even as a prospect in Sweden was never known for his hands or fancy stickwork, is typically lauded for his vision and being positionally sound; he found just as many opportunities for linemates Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, who also both put up career highs in points. "He always seems to know where we are," Marchessault said. "Always."
Though the plus-minus stat has come out of vogue when evaluating players, Karlsson's league-high plus-49 doesn't happen by accident. To fully understand the Karlsson ascent, consider the blank stares and stuttering you receive from teammates when asked what they knew about the former Blue Jacket before arriving at training camp.
"Not a whole lot," said defenseman Nate Schmidt, formerly of the Washington Capitals. "I played against him, he was in the division. This kid, he was somebody that people had talked about, but you weren't really sure."
"We played a lot against each other as fourth-liners," said Bellemare, a former Philadelphia Flyer. "I thought he was a good defensive guy. You saw in camp he was capable of doing much more than before. But scoring 40, 40-plus goals? I didn't see that in camp, for sure."
Added Ryan Reaves, the trade-deadline acquisition: "I didn't know much about any of the guys, to be honest. I sure know a lot about him now."
After his first inauspicious season in 2014-15, Karlsson wasn't guaranteed to make an NHL roster. The message from Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was clear: Come back after the summer with more speed. Deutsch, Karlsson's agent, linked his client with Henrik Petre. Deutsch represented Petre as a player; once an elite prospect from Sweden himself, Petre's career was derailed by injuries and he pivoted to a second career as a trainer. Petre was going to help make Karlsson faster. But before they got to work, Petre asked Karlsson his goals. "I want to excel in the NHL and show the world how good I can be," Karlsson said, according to Petre. So the trainer promised: "I will show you what it takes to be a professional."
When Karlsson returned to Sweden, Petre picked him up at the crack of dawn and drove him two hours north of Stockholm to Gavle, where he did drills with other NHL players. Sometimes Karlsson would train with former NHL players much older than him; often, his training buddies were Blue Jackets teammate Alexander Wennberg (a good friend), current Golden Knights goalie Oscar Dansk and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Lukas Bengtsson. For the entire summer, save for a short vacation, they trained three hours in the morning, Monday through Friday.
As Karlsson worked through the program, Petre peppered him with advice:
Stick with the plan -- don't change.
Don't be afraid you are doing something wrong -- of course you always have to analyze what you're doing -- but believe in what you're doing.
Everyone gets what they deserve.
You're going to get the chance, and it's important that you're ready when you get the chance.
Columbus had a surplus of forwards with NHL contracts heading into the 2015-16 season, so in training camp, coach Todd Richards tried Karlsson everywhere: in the top six as a center, as a checking-line center, on the fourth line as a wing. Karlsson proved he was capable ... everywhere. Columbus figured the utility player was good enough to make the roster. He was scratched for the season opener, then played the next 81 games. In late October, Columbus fired Richards and replaced him with John Tortorella. Karlsson played better as the season wore on, but still, he waffled between the third and fourth lines. His defensive play was getting notice, but he recorded only nine goals and 11 assists.
After the season, Karlsson returned to Sweden and resumed work with Petre. Karlsson -- who signed a two-year extension worth $1 million per season -- didn't need much encouraging to stick to the plan. He had conviction about his goals.
"I've always wanted to be a top-six player," Karlsson says now. "Not being one in Columbus was really frustrating. I wanted the chance."
But the next season in Columbus was more of the same. Karlsson was relegated to the bottom six. He led forwards in shorthanded time, but he saw his overall role decrease to 13:23 per game and barely got a lick of the power play. His offensive production (six goals, 19 assists) was nothing to write home about. "That fourth line was good," said Bellemare. "They were skating fast and aggressive all the time. They were tough to play in their D-zone because they were playing really well defensive side."
Once again, Karlsson returned to Sweden disappointed but undeterred: He still wanted to show the world what he could do.
Karlsson wasn't surprised when the Blue Jackets exposed him in the expansion draft, nor did he sulk. In fact, when he got the call from Kekalainen that Vegas was going to take him -- Karlsson was back in Sweden at the time -- there was a sense of relief.
"There have been times when I doubted myself, could I really do this?" Karlsson said. "Then I got picked by Vegas and I thought to myself this is my big chance. It's up to me to take it. I'm glad I took it."
That summer, nothing changed with his training. "He is always the same -- never cheats himself, never finds excuses," Petre says. The trainer remembered one day last summer when he put Karlsson through a tough bike test. Karlsson pushed through it, then afterward sprawled out on the ground and began yelling, "Henrik! Come, you have to help me with my legs!" Petre had to massage Karlsson so he could resume working out. "He does what needs to be done," Petre said.
The Golden Knights had sketched out that Marchessault and Smith, teammates with the Florida Panthers, would man the top line with KHL star Vadim Shipachyov. Karlsson was slotted for a second- or third-line role -- and likely at wing. But on Oct. 22, after Karlsson scored his first goal of the season (he would begin the season pointless in his first four contests), coach Gerard Gallant decided to try Karlsson centering the top line at practice.
The rest is Knights history. His teammates began to see what Karlsson saw all along. "His deception with the puck is insane," Schmidt said. "When you see guys who really make plays, it's how they deceive other players. That's what some of the goal scorers in the league do."
Added Bellemare: "He gets a lot of credit for his offensive game, but all of his offensive game is because he works so well defensively. He's on the right side of the puck -- he reads the play so well. He's much faster than he gets credit for, and a lot of times he gets breakaways and people don't realize he's that fast. It's always fun to see, especially for a player like me that is trying to work on my defensive game. It's good to see a guy like him because it's an example. I try to do what he's doing."
Smith noted Karlsson's confidence grew "rapidly" once he got promoted. "I played against him a few times when he was in Columbus. Structurally, defensively, I knew he was always a smart player. I don't think he was given the opportunity that he's gotten," Smith said. "Even some of the goals he scored in the later part of the season, you knew he was feeling it."
No doubt Smith was alluding in part to a March 31 goal that sent NHL social media into a tizzy. On a shorthanded breakaway against the Sharks, Karlsson evaded a poke check by goalie Martin Jones by slipping the pucks through his own legs -- a la Marek Malik's famous shootout goal -- and chipping it in from behind. Only difference? Karlsson was doing it at full speed.
By the time Karlsson returned to Columbus on Jan. 23 -- and he already had racked up 25 goals, more than during his two seasons with the Blue Jackets combined -- Marchessault asked if there would be a tribute video.
"Probably not," Karlsson said. "I scored six goals all of last year."
As accolades began pouring in for Karlsson, he remained true to himself. "He's not that in-your-face personality," Reaves observed. "He's one of the quiet guys in the room, but he's got the skill of one of the best players in this league."
In other words, Wild Bill is still tame. He doesn't have a ton of outside hobbies; Wennberg taught him how to play the guitar, but teammates lament that he plays very poorly. He doesn't drive a flashy Lamborghini to games like Marchessault. Perhaps the only noticeable change in his life is when he posts photos on Instagram -- like an April 19 picture of him celebrating, captioned: "Vegas, are you ready for the next round?" -- he gets comments from music stars like Diplo and Tiesto.
Back home in Sweden, Petre beamed. He knew the hard work Karlsson put in explained why, when given an opportunity to play nearly 20 minutes per game, the center barely showed fatigue; Karlsson was the only Golden Knights forward to suit up in all 82 games. "It gives me goosebumps," Petre said. "That's why I do this work. It gives hope to so many players to never give up on the plan."
Karlsson becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and though serious contract discussions are on hold until after the season, it's clear he's happy in Vegas. When it's time to negotiate, who knows? Wild Bill's wild ride could include another chapter: a date with the Stanley Cup.