Golden Knights’ Karlsson Carries a Lot of Questions
Since joining the Vegas Golden Knights, William Karlsson has been a key player for the organization. Coming to the team via trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft, Karlsson was a steady player in the NHL, but he was not projected to be more than a third-line center. However, Vegas proved to be the opportunity that the former second-round draft pick (53rd overall) needed to take his career to the next level.
In their inaugural season, the Golden Knights had to face a unique set of challenges. The main one being, how would the players perform with no real chemistry between each other? As it would turn out, that was not a problem for the Golden Knights. In a historic first season, they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The season was largely credited to players being given an opportunity to prove their worth. Karlsson took this opportunity and capitalized on the fresh start.
During his first season in Las Vegas, Karlsson recorded career numbers. This offensive explosion came to the surprise of many as he only had 25 points (6 G, 19 A) with Columbus the season before joining the Golden Knights. Karlsson ended his first season in Vegas with 43 goals and 35 assists for 78 points. Although this breakout was shocking at the time, there are two key reasons for how it happened.
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First, Karlsson was given the chance to play first-line minutes. In theory, the more a player is on the ice, the better chance they have to record more points. In his final year with the Blue Jackets, Karlsson averaged 13:23 TOI. With the Golden Knights, he had an average time on ice of 18:43. This jump in ice-time is one factor that led to Karlsson’s career season.
The second, more likely, factor was who was on his line. During the 2017-18 season, Karlsson centered Reilly Smith and 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, both of whom went to Vegas from the Florida Panthers. With the pair of forwards already having some built-in chemistry, it was an easy line for Karlsson to slide into.
It took pressure off the then 25-year-old center since he could play off of his linemates’ tendencies. In that season, the line combination of Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith had a combined total of 213 points as they all posted career-highs in that category.
Karlsson quickly became a fan-favorite in Vegas after the inaugural season. However, there was still the question if he would be able to maintain that level of production. The Golden Knights had no real pressure because it was their first year, but now they were expected to continue their dominance. As a whole, the Golden Knights continued to have a stranglehold over the Pacific Division, but there was a decline in the production for the young star.
Over the next two seasons, Karlsson would not reach 25 goals in either campaign. During the 2018-19 season, he tallied 24 goals in 82 games. This season, before the pause of play, Karlsson only had 15 goals in 63 games. This decline did not come from a lack of effort though, as his shot attempts remained consistent. He had 322 shot attempts (with a 23.4 shooting percentage) in 2017-18 and 316 SA (with a 14.2 S%) in 2018-19. He played 82 games in both of those seasons.
Although Karlsson only played 66 games due to the pause in 2019-20, he still had 251 shot attempts (with a 10.9 S%). While his goal-scoring numbers have decreased, Karlsson has stayed consistent in the assist category. In each of his seasons with the Golden Knights, he has recorded at least 30 helpers. If the season was not paused, it looked as if he was on track to set a career-high in assists as Vegas still had 11 games left in the season.
An explanation for this downward trend in goal production could be related to the additions of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. Since coming to Vegas, the two forwards have made their presence known. In the 2019-20 season, Pacioretty led the Golden Knights in goals and points, while Stone led the forwards in TOI with 19:24 and the team in assists with 42.
With the addition of these superstars, Karlsson does not have the same amount of pressure to score. Even though his numbers are down, Karlsson is still in the top five on the Golden Knights in goals, assists and points. Karlsson might not be producing at his career-best, but he is still only 27 years old and been a consistent name on the VGK score-sheet.
Prior to the 2019-20 season, Karlsson signed an eight-year, $47.2 million contract. This would carry an AAV of $5.9 million. The contract has a 10-team no-trade list, but does not have a no-movement clause and will leave Karlsson as a UFA at the end of the 2025-26 season.
At the time the contract was signed, Karlsson was coming off his second season in Vegas and was still producing at a level higher than what was originally expected of the young center. This contract will have him stay in Sin City until he is 33-years-old.
There are a few possible downsides to this contract. As of right now, the Golden Knights only have $309,818 left on their final cap hit. This becomes a problem when players like Chandler Stephenson, Robin Lehner and Nick Cousins are all set to become free agents at the end of this season. Also, it makes it much more difficult to re-sign Alec Martinez, who will become a free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season.
If Karlsson’s point production continues to trend down, it could take a big hit out of Vegas’ available salary cap down the line and make the possibility of trading him much harder. With his contract being as large as it is, it could hinder the Golden Knights’ chances of signing or trading for higher-level talent. A contract of that size with minimal goal scoring could scare potential buyers away.
Once again, these downsides are only realized if a downward trend were to continue. If not, and Karlsson continues to increase his point production, this contract could be a steal for the Knights. As mentioned earlier, he was on pace to set a career-high in assists this season. Another stat to keep in mind is that in 27 playoff games with the Golden Knights, Karlsson has 9 goals and 20 points. So even if his production is slipping slightly, he is able to step up when the games matter most.
Lastly, a reason why his contract can still be considered a good deal is how well he plays defense. Offensive numbers can be viewed as a way to determine a player’s worth, but Karlsson is a player that works hard on both sides of the ice. During his time playing in Vegas, Karlsson is a plus-61 and is also a prominent feature of their penalty kill. His skill on the defensive side of the puck has allowed him to lead the Golden Knights in shorthanded goals for two seasons and be the franchise leader in shorthanded points.
All in all, Karlsson has made himself a legitimate top-six forward in the NHL. He was presented with an opportunity and seized it. He has proven himself valuable to the Golden Knights not only in the regular season, but also in the playoffs. The fans love “Wild Bill” and the love seems to be reciprocated as he did agree to a long term deal to stay in the desert. Karlsson still has the prime years of career ahead of him and he will definitely continue to be a solid player for the Golden Knights for years to come.
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