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July 22, 2019

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Why the Golden Knights should sign Karlsson to long-term deal


John Locher / AP

Golden Knights center William Karlsson speaks during an NHL hockey media day for the Stanley Cup Final, Sunday, May 27, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Golden Knights forward William Karlsson shocked the NHL this season with a 43-goal regular season, and now the team must make a decision regarding his contract status.

The options regarding restricted free agents in the NHL can be complicated, but it can be simplified to this question: Does Vegas want to lock Karlsson up long term, or take a gamble by signing him to a shorter-term deal to protect themselves in case this season was a fluke?

The 25-year-old center raised his price tag significantly with his career year, obliterating his previous highs in goals (9) and points (25) with 43 and 78 respectively. Some would argue that Karlsson’s value is currently as high as it will ever be, and signing him now would be a bad deal for the Golden Knights.

Here’s why that’s wrong, and why General Manager George McPhee should make Karlsson a Golden Knight for the next seven years.

Karlsson’s cost hasn’t peaked — it can go much, much higher

If the Golden Knights decide not to offer Karlsson a long-term contract, the case could end up going to NHL arbitration. Both the player and the team submit their proposed salary (what they believe he deserves) and an arbitrator renders a verdict.

That results in either a one- or two-year deal, and Karlsson would have to prove he's not a one-hit wonder over that span. The problem with that scenario for the Golden Knights is that if Karlsson has two more impressive seasons and becomes an unrestricted free agent, his cost would skyrocket.

Right now the Golden Knights have some leverage, as Karlsson is only a restricted free agent, but in an open market it would create a bidding war between multiple teams and inflate the price dramatically.

Karlsson’s current value is roughly $6 million to 7.5 million per season, which would be a $42-52.5 million deal over seven years if the Golden Knights locked him up until he’s 32 years old. If Karlsson continues playing well and hits the open market, he would cost up to $10 million per season — and worse, Vegas could easily lose him all together.

The Golden Knights are likely regretting their decision to take Nate Schmidt to arbitration last offseason. He’s now proven himself as a top-pairing defenseman and will demand a much bigger salary after the 2018-19 season. If they make the same mistake with Karlsson, the consequences will be more costly.

A long-term deal sets Vegas up well for the future

The Golden Knights already have two-thirds of the NHL’s most productive line under long-term contract with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and they’ve got them at a bargain value.

Smith is signed to a $5 million per year contract through the next four seasons and Marchessault is making the same amount for the next six. That means if Vegas gave Karlsson a long-term deal worth $7 million per year, it would still only have $17 million invested in the top line.

The three displayed incredible chemistry this season with 47 goals for and only 23 against while they were together on the ice.

“It’s awesome, honestly, knowing that me, Karlsson and Smith are going to be here for awhile,” Marchessault said on locker clean-out day, speaking as though Karlsson’s deal is all but done. “You don’t necessarily find an amazing connection like that, so it’s something we need to take advantage of.”

All three play a 200-foot game, meaning they excel equally on offense and defense. Keeping them together decreases the likelihood of a drop-off from any of the trio, and the contracts are team-friendly enough to not hurt the Golden Knights’ long-term cap situation.

Karlsson’s success is repeatable

One of the biggest arguments to the theory that Karlsson will regress and eventually come crashing back to earth is his historically good shooting percentage.

Karlsson scored his 43 goals this season on only 184 shots, making his shooting percentage 23.4. That is significantly higher than the NHL average of 9.02 percent, and history suggests it will go down. Of the last 20 players with a shooting percentage above 20 with at least 100 shots, only one has repeated it the following season (Alex Tanguay, 2006).

It’s important to note that Karlsson’s great shooting percentage isn’t a product of a laser-guided missile of a shot (like Alex Ovechkin for example), but instead his ability to find openings in the defense and make wide-open shots.

A large portion of Karlsson’s goals this season came off one-timers that he put past the goalie before they ever had a chance. Assuming he stays healthy and continues to play with his linemates, there is no reason to think he won’t be able to reproduce that.

The second important note is that even if Karlsson’s scoring production dips from 43 goals, he will still be worth every penny because of everything else he brings. Karlsson also displayed great playmaking ability with 35 assists, and if he receives more attention from the defense, that number will only go up.

Most important, he was one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL, consistently shutting opposing centers down.

“There’s a lot more to Karlsson than just scoring,” Marchessault said. “Defensively, he’s awesome and I think we have a mentality as a line to play well defensively first and goals will happen.”

He averaged 1:39 of ice time on the penalty kill in the regular season, which rose to 1:58 in the playoffs. He finished the season with a league-leading plus/minus of plus-49.

A certain amount of chance goes into scoring goals in the NHL. A bounce here and a bounce there could be the difference, so it’s unlikely Karlsson will repeat his 43-goal season. But his skating ability and defensive intensity won’t be going anywhere.

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