In the pantheon of hockey lore, very few things have come as unexpectedly as the development of 25-year-old sniper William Karlsson. In a single season, the Swedish forward went from ‘depth player with upside’ to a breakout NHL star.
Scoring a career high 43 goals, besting his previous total of just nine from two seasons before and finishing third in the league in that category behind just Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, it has been an unbelievable season for a player who was essentially given to the Knights by his former team.
The Columbus Blue Jackets used Karlsson, a first-round pick and a second-round pick in order to have Vegas take on the contract of David Clarkson, but also to protect more highly coveted players such as Josh Anderson and goalie prospect Joonas Korpisalo.
Karlsson was not the hands-down top choice. He was not a sure-fire pick destined for greatness. He was an ageing prospect who hadn’t quite shown himself to be much more than that.
In his previous two seasons combined, both playing 81 games, he amassed just 15 total goals, 45 total points, and shot at a 7.4% clip, well below league average.
His breakout is as surprising as anything else surrounding the Golden Knights this season and was a joy to watch unfold. What might not be as much a joy for Golden Knight fans; his impending contract negotiation.
Karlsson is still just a restricted free agent, and in years past, players like him would be on the path towards a bridge deal, but those deals have begun to die out in the NHL as teams opt to try and get their players locked into long-term deals as early as possible.
In recent years, names like Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have opted to sign their big-money deals immediately after their entry-level deal expired. Others, such as the big three in Toronto (Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner), appear set to do the same as early as this offseason.
But the Golden Knights aren’t those teams. And William Karlsson isn’t those players. Recent trends might be pulling the game in one direction, but the Golden Knights owe it to themselves to consider other options.
What exactly is a bridge deal and what does it do?
For those who aren’t fluent in professional sports contracts; a bridge deal is essentially a short-term contract at a mid-level price that allows the team to sign a player at a lower, team friendly rate in exchange for the player not being locked into a long-term deal.
The idea is that the player gambles on himself. The upside, they could become a more valuable commodity when it comes time to enter free agency, adding millions of dollars to their average annual value in time for their big money deal. The downside, if they get injured or don’t perform, they won’t likely get as much in free agency as they could have signed for had they gone long-term instead of a bridge deal.
A good example of the bridge deal working for the player came when the Montreal Canadiens used such a contract with P.K Subban after his entry-level contract expired following the 2011-12 season.
Paying the young superstar defenseman just $2.875M over two seasons, the Canadiens got an extended run with Subban on a team friendly deal. The trade off was that his next contract was massive. Subban won the Norris Trophy during his bridge contract so, when time came to sign his big money deal, he left nothing on the table, inking an 8-year, $72-million contract.
There are a lot of articles on the subject of bridge deals. Ryan Lambert and Colton Praill have authored articles that see bridge deals in mostly negative light. And that’s fair. Bridge deals can go wrong at times. Giving a player more time to put up numbers and win awards while the salary cap grows means potentially paying more long-term that you might if you simply lock a player in immediately.
So why am I suggesting the bridge deal if they backfire so spectacularly and the NHL is going away from them?
Yes, for franchise level players it makes the most sense to avoid the bridge deal. Lock them up as early as possible for as little as possible. And assuming that as the cap grows, their percentage of the cap will fall and the deal will get eclipsed by others, making theirs look like a steal by comparison.
It does not make sense here.
Here, the Golden Knights should bet on history. And history suggests Karlsson’s sky-high value will be coming back down to earth very soon, and when it does, the team could end up saving money on the cap by showing patience.
Separating facts from the myths of shooting percentage
It is fair to say that 40-goal scorers are exceedingly rare in today’s NHL. As such, one might look at Karlsson’s 40-goal campaign and deduce that he must be an elite level talent. The kind that the team should look to skip the bridge deal with and lock up quickly to a long-term extension.
The truth is not that simple. And while it is not the popular opinion at the moment, it may in fact be that Karlsson is among the luckiest 40-goal scorers of the post-lockout era and is in line for a massive regression next season.
You’ve probably seen the word “sustainable”— or a variation of — thrown around a lot this season. No one thought what Vegas was doing was sustainable, for example.
There are those who believe what Karlsson has done this season is sustainable. Not just repeatable, but sustainable. That having gone the entire season with a sky-high shooting percentage is proof of that sustainability. That it is a product of talent and shot selection more than luck. That he “only shoots when he scores,” so to speak.
This misunderstands what people mean when they say that his shooting percentage is “unsustainable.”
Anything is “sustainable” over one season. Anything is repeatable in a bubble. Even numbers we know through history eventually regress to the mean such as shooting percentage in hockey or Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) in baseball are repeatable. Sure, Karlsson might even do it next season.
However, it is unsustainable long-term over multiple seasons. Like, for example, over the multiple seasons the Golden Knights might be paying Karlsson for after his 40-goal campaign where he shot 23.4%. Not just this season, but next, and the one after, and even after that, and so on. That 23.4% is his new norm, and not just a blip.
For context, the average shooting percentage in the NHL was 9.3% in the 2017-18 regular season.
This is where the Golden Knights need to be aware of history and not allow hype and the misunderstanding of statistical regression to rewrite what we know to be true.
Here is a list of all shooters (excluding Karlsson) who have taken a minimum of 100 shots and averaged a shooting percentage over 20% since 2004-05.
You’ll notice two things.
The first, it’s a small list. 19 players in all, only one of whom repeated the feat over multiple seasons (Alex Tanguay). The second, that every player saw a regression in shooting percentage the following season and, for most, it came with a drop in production.
In fact, for many players their high shooting percentage year was their career year.
Only three of the nineteen were able to match or outproduce their high shooting percentage year in goals the following season (Holmstrom, Stamkos and Spezza) and it always came due to an increase in shot volume.
That matters because Karlsson is on a line with players like Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Because of that, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where he will have the room to increase his shot volume, especially if he’s not scoring on 23% of his shots. There isn’t likely to be room for him to both see a drop in shooting percentage as well as an increase in shot volume. At least not without becoming far more accurate of a shooter (he missed the net or was blocked 144 times in 2017-18).
So, where does that leave us? When factoring in a diminished shooting percentage and a similar shot volume, what exactly are we looking at in terms of scoring output for next season?
If we take the career shooting percentage of the greatest goal scorer of this generation, Alex Ovechkin’s 12.4%, and apply it to Karlsson, we’re looking at roughly a 23-goal season on 184 shots.
That is a massive drop off. And all that needs to occur for that to happen is for Karlsson’s shooting percentage to drop to the level of only being as good as the best goal scorer we’ve seen this generation.
Getting back to the point
The offseason is always full of peril. Bad trades, bad drafts, bad free agent signings, and if you’re the Florida Panthers you can accomplish all three in a matter of hours (hey-o, expansion draft humor!). For the Golden Knights, the potential for a bad contract negotiation looms large this offseason.
Karlsson is a great player and he deserves to be extended. Start there. And while his goal scoring will likely drop off next season, his point totals might not as drastically so based on his linemates and the fact that together they can be a dominant force that controls play and creates scoring choices. He deserves a substantial raise from the $1 million he was making this season.
But the Golden Knights deserve something too.
They deserve and frankly owe it to themselves to take whatever chance they have, whatever time they can acquire to see what they really have in Karlsson. And that takes more than one season where the player has a career year thanks in part to an unsustainable run of lucky results.
Yes, it comes with a risk. It may cost them more in the long run if Karlsson proves to be the rare exception to statistical regression, but time and history is on the side of the Golden Knights. They have to be willing to take that risk here.
Karlsson’s shooting percentage will regress. When it does, it could mean we see higher assist totals from him, or it could mean we see him shoot more (or hit the net more) to compensate, or it could mean his production bottoms out. We really don’t know. And while that’s not a good thing for the Golden Knights, when his production normalizes, the team will finally be able to get a clear picture as to what kind of player he is going forward.
More importantly, it will give them insight in what to pay him.
Right now, on a long-term deal, Karlsson’s value is at an all-time high. The Golden Knights cannot be caught paying for what could be — and by all indications is likely to be — a career year. If they wait for even just a single season for Karlsson’s production to normalize, they could save themselves a mistake of a few million dollars.
If it’s me doing the signing, I’m looking for something in the two-year, $3.75 million range. A team friendly contract that both offers Karlsson a raise and a chance to prove 2017-18 was not a fluke.
The alternative is looking back at this offseason, and some long-term deal they signed with Karlsson in the face of overwhelming evidence that it would be a bad idea, and finding themselves on the wrong side of a history that can’t be rewritten as easily as they have the record book.