Goaltenders throughout the NHL must hate the sight of William Karlsson more than almost anything else right now. Because in a season in which Alex Ovechkin is staring down another 50-goal campaign, Patrik Laine is terrorizing keepers at a stunning rate and the league as a whole is on pace to have about 30 or so 30-goal scorers, Karlsson is having a season the likes of which NHL hasn’t seen in more than two decades.
Call it Vegas magic or a blessing of beginner’s luck that has seemingly affected every Golden Knights skater this season, but Karlsson has been on the type of heater that would have seen him picked up by the scruff of his shirt and tossed out the doors of any casino foolish enough to allow him inside. He’s been the NHL’s most can’t-miss shooter in the sense that, well, he almost literally can’t miss. Sunday night’s tilt that pitted Vegas against the Calgary Flames basically epitomized his campaign, too.
Against Calgary, Karlsson managed four shots on goal in roughly 18 minutes of ice time. Three of those — a two-on-one one-timer, a quick slapper from the left circle and a wrister from the right — found twine across a span of little more than eight minutes. It marked the second time this season Karlsson had notched a hat trick, but this one was that much sweeter as it was of the natural variety. Most notable about the three goals on four shots, however, is that each successive marker boosted Karlsson’s already-gaudy shooting percentage. He sat at 22.5 percent when the game began and finished the contest with a 23.8 percent shooting percentage. Put another way, Karlsson has now scored on close to one of every four shots he has taken this season following Sunday’s game.
If that seems like an exceedingly high success rate, it’s because it is. To put it into perspective, no player with more than 30 shots has been able to maintain a shooting percentage as great as Karlsson’s this season. In fact, only three players with more than 100 shots have been able to even eclipse the 20 percent mark and each of those skaters — Laine, Brad Marchand and Mark Scheifele — was considered a legitimate all-star, award-contending talent entering the campaign.
So, to see Karlsson, who was somewhat of an afterthought with 18 goals in 183 career games ahead of the season, leading the NHL in shooting percentage and flirting with Rocket Richard candidacy is jarring. It’s also fairly unprecedented in the present era. In the decade-plus since the NHL’s lost season, there are only 25 instances of players shooting 20 percent or better on 100-plus shots and you get an idea of how rare it is for a player to find success at the rate Karlsson has.
There are some consistently high-scoring players among those who have accomplished the feat, of course, including the aforementioned trio of Laine, Scheifele and Marchand, as well as Alex Tanguay, Steven Stamkos and Jason Spezza. But there are also a fair number of flash-in-the-pan forwards who have managed to score at a one-in-five clip post-lockout. Need examples? How about Anson Carter, whose pairing with the Sedins in 2005-06 saw him notch 33 goals on 146 shots? Or what about Mark Parrish and Petr Prucha, who scored 29 goals on 127 shots and 30 goals on 130 shots, respectively, in the first season following the lockout? Then there’s Ryan Malone in 2008-09, Curtis Glencross’ 2011-12 campaign and Zack Smith’s 2015-16 season. None of the three players took more than 125 shots during their individual sharpshooting stretches, yet they finished with respective totals of 26, 26 and 25 goals. Others to score at a similar rate on a similar shot volume include Artem Anisimov, T.J. Oshie, Loui Eriksson, Adam Henrique, Jordan Staal and Patrick Eaves.
The pressing question, though, is what the exorbitant shooting percentage means for Karlsson in the long run. And this is where it’s worth noting that Scheifele and Tanguay are the only players to have multiple seasons with a 20-plus shooting percentage in a season in which they’ve taken more than 100 shots. That would suggest Karlsson’s chances of repeating his performance in subsequent seasons are slim, if not non-existent. Consider the following: Glencross, Malone and Smith were league leaders in shooting percentage their high-scoring seasons but never repeated the feat. Glencross failed to score more than 15 goals in any subsequent campaign, Malone had two more 20-goal years but didn’t eclipse a 13.9 shooting percentage in any of his following full seasons and Smith’s shooting percentage slipped by nearly half after he led the league and is down to 4.9 percent this season.
That kind of drop off isn’t uncommon, either. Parrish, for example, went from back-to-back 20-plus percent seasons to shooting a combined 14.7 percent over the final 204 games he played in his career. Prucha had his big season as a rookie and proceeded to shoot 11.2 percent before exiting the NHL following 2010-11 as a 28-year-old. Carter is somewhat of an outlier in that he shot 15.2 percent and was in the twilight of his career when he had his 33-goal campaign, but he saw his shooting percentage fall by just shy of seven percent the following season. The others in recent seasons aren’t much different. Oshie saw his shooting success fall by almost 12 percent, Henrique by six, Eriksson by seven and even Tanguay’s shooting percentage fell by 10 after his final 20 percent campaign.
But the concern, especially with Karlsson in a contract year, is that he could fall into Brad Boyes territory. In his fourth season in the NHL, the 2007-08 season, Boyes went off and scored 43 goals on 207 shots — a 20.8 shooting percentage — and landed a four-year, $16-million extension because of it. It wasn’t long after, though, that Boyes began to slip. The next season, he shot 15 percent even, scoring 33 goals on 220 shots. The next, his shooting percentage was halved and he managed 14 goals in 82 games in 2009-10. Over the next six seasons, Boyes registered 78 goals in 412 games, and while he remained a useful hand into his mid-30s, his status as a deadly sniper was no more. He shot a combined 9.9 percent across his final six campaigns.
There’s no definite answer here, of course. We could be witnessing the birth of a consistent 30-goal scorer in Karlsson and he could continue to shoot in the high teens for several seasons as he establishes himself as such. But it’s worth noting that Karlsson’s career shooting percentage coming into this season was 7.7 percent on 233 shots. And that should give anyone ready to crown Karlsson as the next great sniper reason for pause.
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