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August 18, 2019

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A closer look: Evaluating Karlsson and his new deal with the Golden Knights

Top-line center’s production has shifted a lot but his expectations shouldn’t

VGK VS ISLANDERS 5

Wade Vandervort

Vegas Golden Knights center William Karlsson (71) waits for referees to drop the puck during an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders at T-Mobile Arena, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.

Many folks, the man himself included, considered last season a disappointing one for William Karlsson. The 26-year-old was practically Superman in 2017-2018, when he netted 43 goals and put up 78 points in a breakout season.

Fans clamored for an encore, but instead, he became Clark Kent again, falling to 24 goals and 56 points to leave some asking for the real William Karlsson to please stand up. He’ll have more time to appease such requests now that he’s cemented as one of Vegas’ building blocks for nearly a decade with a new eight-year contract worth $5.9 million annually against the salary cap.

To determine how the deal will turn out, however, it’s still important to answer questions about last season, namely: How and why did Karlsson have such a precipitous drop in production despite not missing a game? And is it a cause for concern going forward?

There are plenty of reasons a player’s numbers can fluctuate so greatly from year to year. Maybe his team uses him differently and asks him to focus on defense, or maybe there are some underlying numbers to explain.

Karlsson was deployed in a similar manner in 2019 as he was in his breakout year. He averaged 15 more seconds of 5-on-5 time on ice last year compared to 2018. He started 52.1 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone in 2018 compared to 51.6 percent last year, logged one less second of power-play time per game and recorded eight less seconds of penalty-kill time.

But what did the numbers say about his expected contribution during his ice time? At 5-on-5 two years ago, Karlsson posted a 20.3 shooting percentage, which was fourth in the league.

Factor in all situations, and Karlsson sat at 23.4 percent, tops in the NHL. The average was 8.8 percent.

Shooting at almost three times the league rate was unsustainable. A better measure for future production might have been individual expected goals (ixG). It calculates how many goals a player should have over the course of the season by computing the quality of every shot on the ice and the probability they will become goals based on where they were taken from.

Karlsson’s ixG for the 2017-2018 season was 24.8 at all strengths and 13.1 at 5-on-5, quite a difference from the 43 and 26 he put up respectively.

Those expected goal numbers look a lot like his actual output last season, when he scored 24 total goals including 15 at 5-on-5. For the 2018-2019 season, his ixG was 19.3 at all strengths and 12.2 at 5-on-5.

What does this all mean? It goes back to the idea that hockey hinges far more on luck than people would sometimes like to admit.

As skilled as NHL players are, they can’t always control the precise millimeters that go into whether a shot hits a defender, goalie, post or finds the net.

Karlsson severely outplayed his expected goals numbers with an unsustainably high shooting percentage two years ago. It’s part of the reason why the Golden Knights were uncomfortable giving him a long-term deal. They felt they needed more data to assess his value.

His primary numbers plummeted last year but only because the ones from two years ago were so astronomical. Karlsson likely won’t put up statistics like that ever again.

The good news for the Golden Knights is, what he did last year was still impressive.

The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn has built a model to project the value of a player as he ages over the course of a long-term deal and it grades Karlsson favorably.

The model sees Karlsson as worth 14.2 wins over the course of the next seven years because of ice time, goal-scoring and offensive play-driving ranking in the league’s 90th percentile.

That’s a market value of $52.7 million, meaning even if Karlsson provides zero value in the eighth year of his contract, the Golden Knights will still have yielded enough results to make his contract worth it.

Of all new deals signed this summer, Karlsson’s is one of the most team-friendly. Karlsson has legitimately improved since his days in Anaheim and Columbus to become a top-line center.

Vegas paid him well for the progression but did not overpay for the outlier season two years ago.

The Golden Knights have a cornerstone locked up at a rate that could turn into a bargain. And make no mistake: Whether he scores 24 or 43 goals in a season, Karlsson is a cornerstone.

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