Kevin Hayes contract complicates Golden Knights’ discussions with William Karlsson

The Golden Knights have a lot of work to do.

It’s that time of year again, folks. Teams across the NHL are not only doing their due diligence on prospects eligible for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but also preparing to throw lots of money at soon-to-be free agents. Trades are taking place and rumors are swirling. ‘Tis the season.

The Philadelphia Flyers have been particularly busy this month. In just over two weeks, the Flyers have made three trades — the earliest of which came on June 3 when they shipped a fifth-round draft selection to the Winnipeg Jets in order to acquire the rights of pending UFA Kevin Hayes. Tuesday evening, Hayes and the Flyers finally agreed to a seven-year contract worth over $7 million per season. For a player in his age-related prime who has yet to record a single 60-point campaign in his five-year NHL career, the Flyers look to be paying quite a pretty penny.

The Flyers aren’t the first team to significantly overpay for a top-six center this offseason, though. Back in May, the New York Islanders signed 27-year-old Brock Nelson to a six-year contract with an average annual value of $6 million. Like Hayes, Nelson has never reached the 60-point plateau in his career. Still, the Islanders believe the second-line center’s impact is worth the hefty contract.

This all begs the question — if Brock Nelson and Kevin Hayes are worth $6 million and $7 million per year, respectively, what is William Karlsson’s true worth?

To be frank, a lot more.

Karlsson was due for a significant pay raise following his massive 43-goal 2017-18 season. As a restricted free agent last summer, the Vegas Golden Knights found themselves in a bit of a tough spot. Do they pay Karlsson solely based on one very good season and risk a considerable overpay? Or do they sign him to a bridge deal that gives him an opportunity to prove his breakout campaign wasn’t just a fluke?

The Golden Knights wound up opting for the latter. Karlsson and the Knights eventually agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million contract that will make him a restricted free agent once again on July 1 of 2019.

Predictably, Karlsson’s 2018-19 campaign wasn’t anything close to as dazzling as his first season in Vegas. But by no stretch of the imagination was it a poor year for the 26-year-old. After all, he scored 24 goals and 56 points in 82 games. And just by looking at his raw 2018-19 scoring statistics, one could feasibly argue that the $5.25 million contract he signed last summer was on par with his true on-ice value.

But those raw scoring statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Not only was Karlsson effective at 5-on-5 — only Alex Tuch tallied more 5-on-5 points (42) than Karlsson (37) this past season — but he also played key minutes on both the power play and penalty kill. Karlsson finished second on the Golden Knights behind only Jonathan Marchessault in power-play scoring in 2018-19, and he also consistently showed off some dynamic chemistry with Reilly Smith in shorthanded situations.

Brock Nelson and Kevin Hayes are both capable of doing a lot of what Karlsson can do. Both play a good two-way game and are trusted to play on the penalty kill (Hayes more so than Nelson) and both scored 36 points at 5-on-5 this past season — just one point behind Karlsson. The one thing Nelson and Hayes don’t have in common with Karlsson?

A 40-goal season.

At the end of the day, Karlsson’s massive breakout campaign from 2017-18 is going to drive up his average annual value significantly. Nelson and Hayes set the market, and one would imagine that Karlsson is about to raise the bar slightly further.

So, how are the Golden Knights going to clear enough cap space to sign Karlsson to a deal that may very likely be worth over $7 million annually? Expect to see a lot of movement around the draft. Colin Miller, Cody Eakin and Erik Haula are all on very movable contracts that could entice other teams on draft day. They may also opt to move David Clarkson’s $5.25 million contract, though he did just submit his no-trade list to the Golden Knights, which could complicate things.

George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon will have to get creative this summer if they wish to sign Karlsson to a long-term contract. It’s their only option — that is, unless they’re open to potentially moving Karlsson, which would be quite a twist to an already intriguing offseason.