Perhaps the most prized quality a professional coach can see in an athlete – and one perhaps most overlooked by fans – is consistency.
Fans, of course, love the unpredictable, the moment that no one sees coming and makes you rise out of your chair in disbelief.
On the other hand, coaches have a certain affinity for the players they can set their watches to. It’s just one less thing to worry about, especially in a sport like hockey where chaos seems a moment away from reigning at any time.
Which is one reason the Columbus Blue Jackets seem to like Gabriel Carlsson so much.
The Swedish defenseman was so respected by the organization he was taken at the tail end of the first round in the 2015 draft. After two more seasons playing in his native country, Carlsson came to North America this past spring expecting to get his feet wet in the AHL, but quickly advanced to the Blue Jackets and suited up for all five of the team’s playoff games.
“The thing that just stick out to me right away with him is he has no fear,” head coach John Tortorella said after Carlsson made his playoff debut in Game 1 vs. Pittsburgh. “He’s not nervous. I talked to him after practice today, asked, ‘How do you feel?’ He says, ‘It was a blast.’
“He made some stable plays. He played a couple of games in the American Hockey League, now we have him playing in the playoffs here. I always say our back end, it’s encouraging not only for right now but for the future because they’re so young, and he’s one of those guys. It’s really impressive to see just the mind-set that he has.”
But while the reserved Swede doesn’t shy away from that mental approach, looking back, he’s not afraid to admit his spring was a whirlwind.
Carlsson finished his season with Linkoping HC of the SHL, then arrived stateside March 30. After three games with the Cleveland Monsters – all on the road; he never stepped foot in the Forest City – Carlsson was called up by Columbus and played in the final two games at Philadelphia and Toronto on April 8-9, notching his first career assist and point in the final game.
When the first playoff game began April 12 – two weeks after he first arrived from his home country – he was in the lineup.
“It was a lot of different feelings,” Carlsson said this weekend while taking part in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. “It was not really what I expected when I came over. Everything happened really fast, and I didn’t even really think so much. I just tried to live in the moment, and I think that’s maybe what made me successful as well. I tried to play my game and didn’t think too much. It was a good experience for me and hopefully I can start where I finished off last season.”
Against Pittsburgh, the 20-year-old averaged 10:58 of ice time per game and finished plus-1 without a point. His possession stats were mostly neutral, though he was used in 25 offensive zone faceoffs against just 11 in front of Sergei Bobrovsky as Tortorella likely didn’t want to put too much on the youngster’s plate.
That might have been for the best – while Carlsson is known for his steadiness both mentally and in his play, he did say the Stanley Cup Playoffs provided a unique experience.
“You’re cruising around in warm-ups and you see a lot of good players on the other side like Crosby and Malkin – those guys you see on TV,” Carlsson said with a laugh. “You have to like (pinch) your arm a little bit. It was really cool. The crowd is amazing and the game was a little bit different in the playoffs from the regular season – a lot more physical and it was a little bit faster, but it was a lot of fun.”
It seems fair to say Carlsson projects as a stay-at-home defenseman – he posted just three goals and 10 assists in 85 games the past two seasons with Linkoping – and he could be a good one. At 6-4 with an impressive wing span, his reach is a definite strength, and he’s a developing into a smooth skater for someone his size. Carlsson is listed at 191 pounds but said he added six or seven pounds of muscle this summer while working out in Columbus.
In addition, the experienced he gained last season seems likely to help him as he tries to make a deep Blue Jackets blue line this season.
“Of course,” he said when asked if that was the case. “You see the level here and you know what you have to work on in the summer. You came in and know the guys better and the staff and being in the locker room – it gives you more confidence hopefully when you come back for the next season and camp starts.”
Carlsson spent the end of last season living out of a suitcase as he quickly moved his way into the Blue Jackets lineup. This year, he’s hoping to be able to stay in one place while wearing union blue.