Sitting in his locker stall at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, William Karlsson peeled off his gear piece-by-piece, while at the same time wondering if that game would be his last of training camp.
“I gave it everything,” Karlsson said, exhausted after a four-point effort and nearly 17 minutes of ice time on Friday night.
Coming into training camp, he knew the situation: the Blue Jackets were loaded up front. They had an obvious surplus of forwards on NHL contracts, thus making it a rather clear-cut situation for himself or any of the organization’s young players looking to break through – long story short, if you’re going to make it, you’d better do something special.
From the first day of training camp, that was Karlsson’s goal.
He felt energized by the opportunity in a new organization, and given a taste of the NHL late last season and a full summer to get further familiarized with the team, this fall felt different. Karlsson was a regular member of Todd Richards’ lineup in the preseason, and with each passing game, he seemed to take step after step and with it came the coach's trust.
When the Blue Jackets made their final round of cuts on Saturday night, Karlsson’s name remained on the NHL roster. He was one of the 23 healthy players who will begin the season with the big club, and he's here for good reason; Karlsson’s steady and consistent performances made it a rather easy decision to keep him in Columbus.
“I think he’s improved (from last year) and he looks faster on the ice, but I think his play has stayed the same,” Richards said. “What I mean by that is he’s a very reliable, trustworthy guy and he does the little things right. His game has improved, but what I mean ‘stayed the same’ is that, as a coach, you trust him. You know what to expect. He’s smart positionally, in the right places, he can make plays and provide some offense.
“I put him out on a penalty kill 5-on-3, and he’s right in front of (the point man) eating pucks. When you sit on the bench and watch that, it’s part of a culture thing that you want on your team.”
This fall’s edition of "Wild Bill" showed many of the attributes that attracted the Blue Jackets to him when they made a deadline trade with Anaheim last spring. Karlsson was part of the James Wisniewski deal that also brought Rene Bourque to Columbus, and though he was sent to Springfield (AHL) when the trade was announced, it wasn’t long before Karlsson joined the parent club.
Recalled on Mar. 23 due to an injury to friend and fellow Swede Alexander Wennberg, Karlsson scored his first goal with the Blue Jackets a few days later in St. Louis. It was a brief NHL stint, but also one in which he learned things that he’d take with him back to the AHL and into the offseason.
When he came back to Columbus in August, Karlsson felt a new level of confidence that shone through in training camp.
“I feel a lot more comfortable this year with the organization, the city, the guys in here,” Karlsson said. “I’m more confident and comfortable with the systems, which helps now being in my second year. I just came into this camp with confidence and told myself I was going to give it my all, and I feel like I did that.”
Checking line center? Check. Top six forward? Check. Fourth line left wing? Check.
Karlsson played a variety of roles in training camp and the preseason, making himself a viable option for Richards, who kept putting the 22-year-old out there and in various situations. That versatility reminded Richards of former Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu, who seemingly played just about every position here except goaltender.
“He was a big piece of that trade,” Richards said. “I think there’s more there. To get your foot in the door, you’ve got to start somewhere. Right now, he’s put his name in the conversation which is what you need to do as a young player.
“When you make yourself a utility player where the coach can utilize you in different situations, it becomes pretty valuable.”
Two and a half weeks ago, Karlsson reminded himself that he didn’t want to leave camp with any what-ifs and, even though the odds seemed long, he wanted to put himself in the best position possible to make the team.
That goal was achieved, but even if he didn’t break camp on the NHL roster, he was determined to make sure that the door remained open.
“I worked hard all camp, played my game and felt like I kept getting better,” Karlsson said. “You don’t know when your last (preseason) game is, or when you’re getting your last chance. I wanted to leave everything out there. I played my heart out.
“If I didn’t make the team, it’d be disappointing, but then I’d work my tail off to be the first call-up.”