Thursday, May 9, 2019 | 2 a.m.
William Karlsson sighs when asked the question he’s grown accustomed to getting—and tired of answering. Any updates on a long-term contract with the Golden Knights?
“It’s nice to have a long-term [contract], just to not have to deal with these kinds of questions after every year,” the Vegas center jokes. “This is where I want to be. Ever since I got here, I’ve been very happy, both on and off the ice.”
Like many jokes, this one is based in truth. Karlsson wants a long-term deal. And Vegas General Manager George McPhee has repeatedly said he wants him here. Yet, Karlsson and the Golden Knights are headed for the same contract negotiations they held a year ago. Those resulted in a one-year deal worth $5.25 million. This time, it’s anyone’s guess.
The issue last year was trying to determine the value of a player who rose from relative obscurity to superstardom—in the form of 43 goals and 78 points in Karlsson’s inaugural season with the Knights. Now, it’s figuring out the value of a player who followed it up with a 24-goal, 56-point season—still respectable but, in Karlsson’s words, “a little bit of a disappointment.”
The negotiations will result in one of five things. In decreasing order of likelihood, Karlsson will 1) sign a long-term deal, 2) sign a one-year deal, 3) hold out, 4) get traded or 5) receive an offer sheet.
This is the least likely option, but worth examining in case it happens. Another team can offer Karlsson a contract, known as an offer sheet, which he can sign. The Golden Knights would then have seven days to match that contract. If they decline, Karlsson joins whichever team gave him the offer sheet, and the Golden Knights receive compensatory draft picks from his new team, depending on the value of his new contract.
It’s a good idea in theory, giving rights to players before they hit true free agency. And a player like Karlsson, who has elite potential but is having trouble coming to terms with Vegas, seems like a prime target for an offer sheet. But don’t count on it happening. Ryan O’Reilly was the last NHL player to sign an offer sheet, and that happened in 2013. The last player to change teams was Dustin Penner way back in 2007, which suggests that if Karlsson winds up playing for a different organization next year, it will happen some other way.
If it’s clear there’s no deal to be made, the Golden Knights could decide to put Karlsson on the trade block, which would surely pique the interest of just about every team in the league. It’s rare for a center who’s proficient at both ends of the ice to become available.
What might the Golden Knights receive in return? That’s unclear. A team trading for Karlsson would still have to work out a contract with him, so it would negotiate with Vegas on the assumption it was acquiring his rights for one season.
Another high-scoring center, Matt Duchene, fetched the Avalanchefirst-, second- and third-round picks plus three prospects in 2017 when he was traded to Ottawa, but the Senators were acquiring almost two full seasons of Duchene. This year, when Duchene got traded again—this time to Columbus—Ottawa received a first-round pick, a conditional first and two prospects in exchange for half a season of Duchene.
The acquiring team would have the same issue Vegas does in terms of figuring out how to value Karlsson, not only when it comes to sorting out the new contract but also in how much to send Vegas for the opportunity to try.
There’s no real deadline for Karlsson and Vegas to come to terms during the offseason, aside from the start of camp. If the contract dispute lasts beyond summer, Karlsson could miss preseason or even regular-season games. The two sides must put pen to paper by an established date—last year it was December 2—in order to be eligible for him to play here during the 2019-20 season.
Teammate Shea Theodore held out last year, missing five preseason games before agreeing to his seven-year deal as a restricted free agent. Missing regular-season games isn’t a foreign concept either; Toronto’s William Nylander missed 27 this past season before signing on deadline day. So, yes, it’s possible the contract disputes with Karlsson could last into the fall.
This was last year’s compromise, a bandage that delays the issue without solving it. The team retains Karlsson’s rights for one more year before he becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency next July. At that point, a one-year deal would be highly unlikely, since Karlsson could negotiate with other teams, one of which would likely jump at signing him long-term.
A one-year deal this offseason would be a “better than nothing” approach. On one hand, it would signal that Karlsson and the team couldn’t work out a way to keep him in Vegas for the long haul, clouding the 2019-20 season with the worry that it will be his last as a Golden Knight. On the other, it would allow Karlsson to come into camp with a contract and play the season, knowing the two sides could still hammer out an extension during the season.
This is the option both sides have said they prefer. If they decide this is the way to go, deciding on the number of years would come next.
Typically, players have fought for the security of eight years, as Mark Stone did when he received that term after Vegas acquired him in March. Expect Karlsson to want the same. He’ll be 27 in January, so this is his time to cash in big. It’s unlikely he can sign a bridge deal and make as much money on his next contract.
The Golden Knights will likely push for a shorter deal, maybe in the three-to-five-year range. It allows the team to see whether he’s more like the 43-goal scorer of their inaugural season or the 24-goal scorer of last season, and mitigate the risk of signing a player who could decline on the other side of age 30.
All told, a long-term deal remains the likeliest option. Karlsson seems happy in Las Vegas, and the Golden Knights would prefer to have him centering one of their top lines for years to come. The question is how both sides will get there, and what other path they’ll take if they don’t.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.