Many Vegas Golden Knights fans refuse to envision this headlining scenario and although it is a long shot, the Golden Knights may be forced to part ways with center William Karlsson. Due to his high level of play the past two seasons, Karlsson, the Golden Knights’ prized Restricted Free Agent, will rightfully be looking for big money on a long-term contract.
Due to their salary cap crunch and the distance between the two camps regarding his net worth, a trade of his RFA rights may be in play this summer. Last off-season, his first as an RFA, he and the team agreed on a one-year, $5.25 million deal, avoiding arbitration during their stalemated extension negotiations. This summer, he is back in the same spot, as an arbitration-eligible RFA. Last year, he and the team filed a full $3 million per year apart ($6.5 million per vs $3.5 million per season).
Karlsson has been playing a vital role on the team since relocating from Columbus and would be a massive loss, if they indeed choose to trade away his signing rights, to a team willing to pay what the Golden Knights can't or won't, long-term. Despite his value to the team, parting ways with the breakout star would be an effective way to solve their salary cap issues.
William Karlsson (USA Today Sports)
Before suggesting a contingency plan, it’s important to break down the player that could potentially leave the team. Karlsson has given the Golden Knights value in multiple facets of the game. His versatile skill set can be broken down into clear-cut strengths as well as weaknesses. When analyzing his game, a few strengths stand out as the main assets lost in a potential Karlsson trade.
This past season, the Golden Knights put less pucks in the net than they did their inaugural season. Despite bringing in big names such as Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, and at the trade deadline Mark Stone, the team hit goal scoring droughts and was far less consistent throughout the season. Karlsson is one of the many players that experienced an offensive drop off, but that is mainly due to the offensive explosion he experienced in 2017-18. He has amassed the following stat lines during his time as a Golden Knight.
43 goals, 35 assists, 78 points, +49 rating, 53.8 Corsi For% (5v5), 18:43 avg TOI/game
24 goals, 32 assists, 56 points, +1 rating, 54.1 Corsi For% (5v5), 18:51 avg TOI/game
Operating as the de facto number-one center, Karlsson put up solid numbers in both seasons in Vegas. Prior to his selection in the 2017 Expansion Draft, Karlsson topped out at 25 points as a third-line center in his first two full seasons with the Blue Jackets. He arrived in Vegas, established chemistry with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith and promptly turned a corner, as sharply as he flips his luscious golden locks. With a lack of a long-term deal, it seems the team is weighing his past as heavily as his current production, with their team.
Coming in and taking the number-one center position was a tall task, but Karlsson did it well. His plus-vision helped open shooting lanes for himself, as teams originally played him as the playmaking threat he is. Soon, he would begin to benefit from the tenacious forecheck of Smith and the laser passing of Marchessault on his wings. This past season, during a “down season”, his expected Goals For (xGF) total ranked third on the team, at 88.34. Karlsson always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. His knack for the offensive would potentially be a big loss for the club.
On top of his offense, Karlsson is just as valuable in his own end and the neutral zone. He serves as a penalty-killer for the team, spelling Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Cody Eakin over the past two seasons. Together with Smith, he formed the “Power Kill” a PK duo that was a threat to score at any given time, while down a man. That duo threw the opposition for a loop and forced good power play units to play on their heels.
At five-on-five play, his two-way ability holds up, looking into the advanced stats. Last season, his Corsi For rel was a solid 3.7 just a tenth of a point behind superstar Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. His play driving numbers as a whole remained strong, evidenced by his 54.1 Corsi For %. Karlsson’s speed not only creates chances for his team, but just as importantly, helps take scoring lanes away from the opposition. To put his defensive ability into perspective, his 197 defensive-zone starts this year ranked second among all Golden Knights forwards, following Bellemare, who is their number one penalty-killer. First-line centers aren’t typically defensive zone stalwarts, but the 2017-18 sixth-place finisher in the Selke (Top Defensive Forward) voting excelled in his own end.
Over the past two seasons, Karlsson has established himself as one of the faces of the franchise, a forty-goal season will do that kind of thing. On top of his on-ice contributions, his personality has captivated the fan base and media members alike.
And just for laughs….
Losing his personality would be a hit to the great locker room chemistry the Golden Knights pride themselves on. Karlsson is also the 2017-18 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner, an award given to the player with “the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability”. His calming demeanor on the ice was crucial for the expansion club during the 2017-18 season and he continues to fill an important role in the locker room, as a lead-by-example type player.
It is clear to see that Karlsson brings a lot to the table, especially for a guy who was an essentially unknown player, prior to the 2017 Expansion Draft. As nice as it would be to keep him and everyone else from the original team, salary cap constraints and team needs/philosophy come into play. Last offseason saw top-six wingers James Neal (CGY) and currently playing in the Stanley Cup final David Perron (STL) head out the door in free agency. Perron and Neal were no slouches for the Golden Knights, finishing third and sixth respectively in points during the team’s inaugural season. Despite their contributions, they were out the door.
Karlsson is a different case, as he is just 26 and still an RFA. Next offseason, he will be a UFA which forces George McPhee’s hand this summer to get a long-term deal done, or at the very least, capitalize on his asset via trade. With his current production, an offer sheet from another team could also be in play. For a prospective poaching team, the newly announced draft pick compensation scale isn’t terrible for a guy in Karlsson’s salary range. If he were to sign a competing offer sheet between $4.227 and $6.341 million per season, the Golden Knights receive a first and third round draft pick. Opposing teams should be more than willing to make that move for a player of Karlsson’s caliber.
For whatever reason, offer sheets don't get flung around too often in the NHL. The last signed offer sheet was back in 2013 when Ryan O'Reilly signed a two year, $10 million sheet with the Calgary Flames, but the Colorado Avalanche chose to match it. Before that, Shea Weber signed a huge 14 year, $110 million offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers. Shockingly the Predators matched the strong-arm attempt from Philadelphia, but they'd eventually trade him in the near future for fellow defenseman P.K Subban.
What Happens if He’s Gone
Losing or dealing William Karlsson would be a shrewd move for McPhee and company, but it is not one that can’t be done. With their cap crunch, the team needs to find relief and contrary to popular belief, trades for a handful of other players won’t be simple to pull off. Simply put, losing Karlsson’s salary is the Golden Knights’ easiest road to cap compliance. Fortunately, the team has a surplus of centers available and that’s before possibly bringing a guy like Bellemare back into the fold, to solidify the bottom-six and penalty kill.
Golden Knights Centers
William Karlsson (RFA)
Jonathan Marchessault (currently playing wing, has center experience)
Cody Glass (AHL)
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (UFA)
Tomas Nosek (RFA)
Ryan Carpenter (UFA)
Brandon Pirri (UFA)
If the team were to move on without Karlsson, they would be losing a top-six center, but they are already receiving a top-six center who missed most of the 2018-19 season with a knee injury. Erik Haula is one season removed from scoring 29 goals and has the skillset to slot right into second-line center, his original role with the Golden Knights. Naturally, the line of Paul Stastny centering Pacioretty and Mark Stone would operate as “line one”, making a combined $23 million next season, once raises kick in for Patches and Stone. Haula centering Marchessault and Smith as “line two” would be interesting because he has the skating and scoring touch of Karlsson, with a less than significant drop-off in defensive play.
Erik Haula and Jonathan Marchessault Clearly Have Chemistry (USA Today Sports)
In this scenario, Cody Eakin escapes trade rumors and returns as the third line center, alongside Alex Tuch and the incoming Russian import, Nikita Gusev. Those three lines give the Golden Knights a ton of scoring depth. Which center plays between William Carrier and Ryan Reaves then becomes the only question for the team and that is an easy and consequence-free decision to have to make. Bellemare could be brought back on the cheap, but he has admitted that he is not interested in one-year deals at this point in his career. Nosek is another option, as an RFA who would make less than $1 million next season to return.
EA Sports NHL 19 Simulation
Just for the fun of it, I wanted to test out the Karlsson-less roster and the most readily available tool was NHL 19. Most of you are familiar with the EA Sports video game company and how realistic and reality-driven their products are becoming. Now, I am not crazy. A video game simulation gives no concrete predictions into the future. Regardless, the simulation was a fun exercise for this writer, at the very least. Below are the criteria for the simulation.
Schedule from the 2018-19 NHL season was used.
Nikita Gusev (LW) and Jimmy Schuldt (D) were added to the Golden Knights roster.
No injuries, therefore each player played all 82 games.
100% true simulation with no intervention in the games.
At the mid-way point of the season, Gusev led the team in scoring, working alongside the Haula line on the power play. By the time the season ended, Pacioretty was the team leader in scoring, adding another 30-goal season to his resume. For the team, as you can see in the snapshot below, it wasn’t a great season.
Now, as previously mentioned, a simulation from an XBOX game is not a definite and all-knowing projection of a professional sports team. Was it fun to create a potential roster for the 2019-20 season and run them through the test, you betcha. Although the simulation projected the Golden Knights to finish in the bottom half of the Pacific Division, I’m inclined to stand by the belief that Haula could seamlessly fill Karlsson’s potential void. At the same time, the Golden Knights could leverage their tough cap situation to acquire assets in the form of draft picks, something McPhee has already done a ton of in his short time in Vegas.
Another fun tool to project your own version of the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights is the Armchair GM Tool
on CapFriendly. That site is amazing for documenting contracts in the NHL and displaying each team’s financials, regarding the salary cap. If you are so inclined, go check it out and shoot your rosters in the comment section below. I’d love to see everyone’s optimal lineups for year three. Before we know it, Development Camp will be here and shortly after, NHL free agency. Golden Knights Development Camp was announced for June 25 through June 29 at City National Arena.
In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter for up-to-date Golden Knights news, updates, and discussions. I will be very active all summer, as the Vegas Golden Knights prepare for their third season, here in Sin City.