Stars’ faith in Karlström rewarded with strong season

Photo: Ross Bonander

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Fredrik Karlström spent months – months of physical rehabilitation and recovery – working his way back for another chance to take part in the fight for a Calder Cup championship.

The 2022-23 season had been a promising one. The heady two-way forward had collected 26 points in 47 games for the Texas Stars. He had played five more games in the NHL with Dallas – another pay-off on a lengthy road that began when the Stars selected him in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft, a road that wound through the Swedish junior and second-tier levels before Karlström played four seasons in the top-flight Swedish Hockey League with Linköping HC and Växjö HC.

Karlström had a strong first season in North America in 2021-22, including his first three NHL games. Then came a serious injury in a game against Coachella Valley on Mar. 12, 2023. He missed the rest of the regular season. He missed the Stars’ division semifinal sweep of Rockford. He missed a hard-fought five-game loss to Milwaukee in the division finals. He missed all of it.

“You hurt for the player,” Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham said. “You feel for the player.”

Still, Dallas gave Karlström a one-year contract extension last June. It was a boost coming after a significant career setback.

“It showed that they really believed in me,” Karlström said. “They really showed that they believed in me. When I got the injury, they treated me like I was a regular NHL’er, I felt like, so I’m really thankful for that.”

He also made the most of his extended time out of the lineup. He doubled down on his nutritional and strength work. If he had to be off the ice, he made sure not to waste any time.

“I would say I came back a lot stronger than I was before,” Karlström said.

Secondly, he made it back in time for opening night on Oct. 13. Moreover, he played every one of Texas’s 72 regular-season games this season, validation for all of his rehab work.

“I didn’t think I was going to be back that quickly,” Karlström admitted. “To be able to play the first game of the season and then make it all the way to 72 games, that brought me a lot of confidence.”

Said Graham, “He did a great job coming back this year to be able to start on time. Not only did he start camp on time, he had a very consistent year. It was the most consistent of his three seasons over in North America. He’s a mainstay in our lineup.”

He also happened to have a career year offensively, hitting personal AHL highs with 21 goals, 23 assists, 44 points and a team-best plus-14 rating. Graham can use Karlström as a top-six forward, as well as on both the power play and the penalty kill. With linemates Matej Blümel and Oskar Bäck, Karlström is part of a trio that Graham can count on to handle all three zones effectively.

Karlström, 26, also took on a greater leadership role. His board play improved, a strong addition to a toolkit that already had included strong skating, good reach, an ability to distribute the puck and a solid offensive game.

His production carried over straight into the postseason, too. His two power-play goals were all of the scoring in Texas’s series-clinching 2-0 win over Manitoba on Apr. 25, and he assisted on a key insurance goal in Game 2 of this round against Milwaukee on Saturday.

“When you look at his numbers, he’s been very steady,” Graham continued. “(But) he’s found ways to do things that don’t go on the game sheet, and that’s really added to the trust and the minutes. He’s been a real good part of our team.”