You know the story by now. Moved by the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Vegas Golden Knights to sweeten the pot for taking on David Clarkson’s decidedly unfriendly contract, William Karlsson broke out in a big way and became the NHL’s biggest surprise last season. His 43 goals saw him challenge for but ultimately fall short of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy. His 78 points were more than three-times his previous career high. And after two seasons spent as a bottom-line afterthought in Ohio, Karlsson found a fit in Sin City as a top-line center on one of the best and most exciting lines in hockey.
And while Karlsson, 25, bursting into the spotlight meant big things for the Golden Knights last season, now comes the tricky part. Because after a career-best campaign, the kind of career year that can establish a player as an overnight sensation, Karlsson is due a brand new deal after playing out the final season of a two-year, $2-million contract inked back in June 2016. To paraphrase John Malkovich from Rounders, we know the Golden Knights are going to have to pay their man his money, but the two biggest questions remain: how much over how long?
Contracts for other restricted free agents, even those who, like Karlsson, have filed for arbitration, have been much easier to hammer out or at least have some sense of ahead of time. Winnipeg Jets star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck landed a six-year term with a $37-million total payout. About what was expected. Calgary Flames off-season acquisition Elias Lindholm got a healthy raise that will see him paid $4.85 million over the next six seasons — maybe a higher cap hit than expected, but one that comes with some honest upside. Then there were the likes of Montreal Canadiens center Philip Danault and Detroit Red Wings forwards Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, each of whom got in the $3-million range annually on short-term, bridge-type deals.
And as we head towards the potentially contract-deciding hearings, those still on course for their day in front of an arbitrator seem to have the parameters somewhat set. As noted earlier, Colton Parayko’s deal with the St. Louis Blues seems as though it could be a nice baseline for Anaheim Ducks defender Brandon Montour and New York Rangers rearguard Brady Skjei ahead of arbitration. Meanwhile, the asking price for Jets blueliner Jacob Trouba is a reported $7 million with Winnipeg seeking $4 million, and it’s safe to assume a proven top forward and consistent 25-goal scorer such as the Ottawa Senators’ Mark Stone is going to be looking to enter into the $7 million-plus club.
But what those players all have that Karlsson does not is a greater track record, more to go off of than a one-season, potential flash-in-the-pan campaign where they rose from a bottom-six, relative unknown to a household name and unstoppable offensive force. And that’s what makes Karlsson’s contract trickier than any other deal that will be signed this summer.
If we’re to look at what Karlsson has done over the past three seasons of his career, his raw statistics across his second, third and fourth NHL campaigns put him in line with players such the Carolina Hurricanes’ Victor Rask ($4 million AAV), Tampa Bay Lightning’s J.T. Miller ($5.25 million AAV), Rangers’ Vladislav Namestnikov ($4 million AAV) and Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers ($6 million AAV). That would suggest that Vegas might want to find a comfortable middle ground, or even reache the high ground, and pay Karlsson in the high $5-million range or flirt with a $6-million-plus deal over a longer term.
But if we look at his past season alone, he put up numbers commensurate with the likes of the Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, Toronto Maple Leafs’ John Tavares and Jets’ Patrik Laine. Each of those players is currently paid or could very soon earn north $8-million per season. And if you’re Karlsson, knowing you may or may not reach the same scoring heights again, don’t you want to try to cash in?
It’s incredibly difficult for the Golden Knights to go all-in on Karlsson, however, given that everything in his history would suggest his repeating the 40-goal feat is unlikely. Not only had he never scored 10 goals in a single season before, let alone nearly won the Rocket, Karlsson almost tripled his previous career-best shooting percentage by scoring on 23.4 percent of his shots last season. Given his career shooting percentage is 14.6 — and that is inflated from the 7.7 percent across 183 games prior to the breakout — are we really expected to believe Karlsson is going to continue to score as he has? And is it realistic to assume that he is going to go from a 25-point player to one who more than doubles his own points per 60-minutes rate?
But if Vegas tries to play it safe, if they bet against Karlsson without actually hoping for him to have a downturn that’s detrimental to the team, and give him a short-term contract that’s in the $5-million range, that can come back to bite the Golden Knights, too. Say Karlsson scores 30-plus goals repeatedly over the next two campaigns and continues to tease point-per-game campaigns, what is he then worth when his short-term deal is through? If there’s the possibility of Karlsson hitting the open market as an unrestricted free agent, Vegas may have to pay through the nose to keep their top-line center. There’s no way to win in that scenario, either.
There are, however, three notable positives to Karlsson’s current situation. First and foremost, Karlsson is more than a one-trick pony. He’s not a pure scorer with nothing else to contribute. His defensive ability was vastly underrated last season, often overlooked because his point totals grabbed headlines. He deservedly finished sixth in Selke Trophy voting, and his own-zone skill is something that will continue to develop. Second, Vegas has proven themselves capable of finding numbers, both in term and dollars, that work for both sides for this kind of breakout star. Though true that 27-year-old Jonathan Marchessault’s situation was somewhat different — two seasons-versus-one, UFA-versus-RFA — the Golden Knights signed the standout winger to a six-year, $30-million extension as he headed towards his second consecutive 30-goal season. That’s more than fair value for Vegas. Finally, the Golden Knights have time. Karlsson’s arbitration hearing isn’t until Saturday, Aug. 4, the last day cases will be heard. That gives Vegas more than two weeks to hammer something out with Karlsson.
This isn’t a situation that will drag out forever. Matter of fact, it’s unlikely to continue past Aug. 4, if it even reaches that point in the first place. But in the meantime, while both sides continue to work out a deal that works for player and team, the questions, potential pitfalls and possibility of an arbitrator deciding it all will ensure Karlsson’s contract situation remains the most interesting in the NHL.
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