2017-18 Player Review: William Karlsson proves doubters wrong in 43-goal outburst

William Karlsson came in with low expectations and exceeded them in every way possible.

In the 2017-18 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2017-18 performances of each member of the Golden Knights. We have assigned each player a grade, which is a Knights On Ice composite grade made up of our individual ratings. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in both the regular season and playoffs, especially with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role. Note: Only skaters who played in at least 20 games and goalies who played in at least 10 games were included.

When the the Columbus Blue Jackets traded a pair of early-round draft selections to the Golden Knights before the expansion draft, no one knew it would favor the NHL’s newest franchise as much as it has.

The Blue Jackets were a team with a good amount of veterans as well as a number of future assets and young players. Trading some of those assets to assure the Golden Knights wouldn’t claim one of their core pieces made sense at the time. William Karlsson was the intended target. He was a young, bottom-six center who didn’t play a part in the Blue Jackets’ future plans. When Vegas first took Karlsson, however, they likely couldn’t have predicted what he would do in Year 1.

Season in review

Expectations for Karlsson were low. He was one of the very few “true” centers on the Golden Knights’ opening roster. Before long, Karlsson earned a role centering Vegas’ the top line. And look how that shaped up.

One year in, Karlsson had 43 goals, 78 points, won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy and formed excellent chemistry with linemates Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. He finished sixth in Selke voting and agreed to a team-friendly prove-it deal. And if he proves last season wasn’t a fluke, he’ll earn an even larger raise than he already has.

In 2017-18 , Karlsson played 722:34 with Smith and Marchessault, 252:16 with Marchessault but not Smith, and 150:18 without either of them at even strength. Here’s the table:

(NOTE: This does not include the Karlsson-Smith pairing, as the played just 60 minutes together without Marchy)

Karlsson Linemates

LineTOICorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ShareHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Karlsson, Smith, Marchessault722:34:0055.3856.5767.5755.8254.6564.290.92755.51
Karlsson, Marchessault252:16:0054.9155.8872.7355.0748.1962.50.9557.06
Smith, Marchessault91:58:0051.6748.2855.5648.2143.48400.93338.71

Karlsson and his linemates perfectly complimented each other in ways they couldn’t when apart. Their numbers all suffer when put off that line, but together they thrived. Even against the best competition (Karlsson had the second-best time on ice based on quality of competition while Marchessault was third and Smith was fifth) they had positive numbers.

Karlsson had the third-highest points per 60 at even strength of the Knights’ roster (behind Brandon Pirri and Smith), and the fifth-highest primary points per 60 (third behind Smith and Marchessault with more than five games). He had the fifth-highest relative Corsi (second behind Colin Miller of players with more than 10 games) and the fourth-highest relative goal share (first amongst players with more than five games).

Amongst players with more than 1,000 minutes across the NHL, William Karlsson had the highest relative goal share at even strength, above the likes of even Connor McDavid and Artemi Panarin (Marchessault was second). He was also in the top 10 in least goals allowed.

Karlsson was excellent in both directions, and that’s why he was one of the top Selke candidates. Here’s the shot charts to prove it:

And the defensive zone charts:

Karlsson was really excellent at preventing shots from the slot defensively and was quite good at getting shots on goal from the high slot. The Knights also commonly registered shots from the circles well with Karlsson on the ice (hinting at one-timer opportunities), better than without him.

The biggest problem I see with Karlsson’s season is the Stanley Cup Final (which was the problem for a lot of players not named Reilly Smith). In five Cup Final games, Karlsson had just two points. He didn’t have any points in the final three games. With the Knights needing each of those games, for their top center to disappear like that... it wasn’t good.

Karlsson’s playoffs in general weren’t great. He averaged .5 points per game in the Los Angeles Kings series, 1.33 in the San Jose Sharks series, .6 in the Winnipeg Jets series and .4 in the Final against the Washington Capitals. Eight of his 15 points (including three of seven goals) came against San Jose.

In addition, Karlsson was forced to take on a more defensive role since he wasn’t producing. Here are his possession stats in the regular season versus the playoffs.

Regular Season vs. Playoffs

Karlsson InTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1199:40:0053.855.0368.0754.6751.5261.540.93351.61

His possession numbers dipped, but partially because his zone start percentage changed. Marc-Andre Fleury bailed him out a few times more than necessary, however. He became a different player, one who needed to step up more outside of one series.

Standout moment

Karlsson’s greatest moment this season may have been one of the greatest moments of any player in hockey. It was a spectacular goal that helped Vegas clinch the Pacific Division, and it came at the greatest time.

The situation; it’s 2-2 between the Sharks and Knights. The Knights are still attempting to stave off San Jose. In the third period, just after Vegas took a penalty, Karlsson pulled off one of the most beautiful shorthanded goals you’ll ever see.

This was unassisted, shorthanded and downright incredible. Perhaps the play of the year in the NHL. Just... it’s a perfect play. It was Karlsson’s fifth game-winning goal on the year while also sealing the deal for Vegas as division champs. It shows the immense skill that Karlsson has that made it possible for him to hit 40 goals. While his shooting percentage was absurdly high, the goals he was scoring were anything but fluky.

KOI composite grade: A+

In my eyes, Karlsson only gets an A because of his playoff performance. But going off of pre-season expectations, Karlsson blew everything out of the water. He was third in goal scoring behind Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine. He was excellent defensively and looked like a true first-line center.

Expectations would not have put him that high, and that’s why every person in the NHL world expects him to regress. He set the expectations and the bar for himself so high that 15 points in 20 playoff games is quite disappointing. He looked incredible throughout the season and was truly exceptional. A+ fits him more than anyone else.

Aside from myself, he got an A+ from every other member of the KOI staff.

Looking ahead to 2018-19

Karlsson is on a one-year, $5.25 million deal. That’s a prove-it contract if there’s ever been one, and it’s time for Karlsson to prove whether or not the Golden Knights can count on him as the long-term first-line center. If he does regress off of 40 goals, it will also be necessary for him to prove that he’s a good playmaker.

He shouldn’t drop below 70 points anytime soon — not with the wings he has — and certainly not while he’s still in his prime. He’ll still be an excellent two-way forward, one that finds ways to protect the net and get the puck back up the ice. That’s still an incredibly useful asset. But will he ever score 40 goals again? That’s on him to prove.

How would you grade Karlsson’s 2017-18 performance?

C- or below1