Sitting on the sidelines was new territory for William Karlsson.
He was not a fan.
“That was a long stretch for me,” Karlsson said, “and it kind of sucked, to be honest.”
After missing eight games with what coach Peter DeBoer confirmed to be a broken finger, the Golden Knights’ ironman is hopeful to rejoin his teammates in the lineup for Tuesday’s one-off road game against the Minnesota Wild.
“It’s been tough sitting out. Not only playing, but being without the guys in the locker room,” Karlsson said Sunday. “I was very proud to play all of the games, so I was bummed about it. But now it’s just about looking forward.”
Karlsson played all 18:43 in his last game Jan. 14 at Buffalo, with no glaring injury to be seen upon reviewing the tape. The Golden Knights’ top center confirmed the injury occurred during the final shift, which Vegas lost 4-2 to the reeling Sabres.
The next day, Gerard Gallant was fired. DeBoer said he wasn’t aware that Karlsson had broken his finger when he took the job, so he proceeded with the lines as planned without prior knowledge. DeBoer’s first task as Vegas coach was trying to put a lineup together without Karlsson and rookie center Cody Glass.
“It all of a sudden looked more daunting without our number one and two center in the lineup,” said DeBoer, who coached the first seven games of his Vegas tenure on the road. His first home game was Saturday, a 6-5 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Golden Knights are 4-2-2 under DeBoer with an incomplete lineup. That gives way to optimism for DeBoer, who is certainly testing what versatility he has with his forward group.
Karlsson was a full-contact participant at practice Sunday, with a twist; as third-line center with Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch to his sides. Karlsson later took rushes as the third-line left wing.
Find whatever level is beyond weird and that’s where you’ll find this combo.
To be clear: It’s uncertain this will be the line when Vegas takes the ice at Xcel Energy Center in less than 48 hours. Chandler Stephenson, who appears to have put a stranglehold on the center spot between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone for the time being, had a maintenance day Sunday. Stephenson is expected back at practice Monday, which will provide some clarity as to what in the twilight zone is actually happening.
Paul Stastny, filling in for Karlsson’s spot on the top line, has six points in five games centering for Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
“I thought the guys did a really good job weathering the storm,” DeBoer said. “I think guys took advantage of the opportunity of him being out like Stephenson to jump in there and give us some real quality work, but it’s nice to have him back. As much as I admire [Karlsson’s] game, the people that are here, coaching staff, George [McPhee], Kelly [McCrimmon] they’ve told me over and over how much I’m going to appreciate having this guy in the lineup, so I’m looking forward to getting him back in.”
DeBoer also didn’t mince words on tinkering with the lines when the Golden Knights are 100 percent. That includes where to slot Glass in the lineup, who DeBoer confirmed was reassigned to AHL Chicago on Saturday for a conditioning assignment.
The lines the Golden Knights have rolled for the past two-plus seasons may be rather different soon.
That’s to be expected given the Golden Knights’ all-hands-on-deck mentality for the final 25 games. Vegas, at 28-21-8, is one point behind the Vancouver Canucks for first place in the Pacific Division and tied with the Edmonton Oilers with 64 points. Especially with Vegas’ schedule through February — six of its next eight opponents are in a playoff position — the room for error is little.
“That’s going to be fluid,” DeBoer said. “I don’t have a history here with any lineup combinations. I know what’s worked in past, and I also know that some of those combinations that have worked in the past haven’t worked at different points, too.
“I’m going in with an open mind, and I think it’s a fresh start for everybody, and we’ll see what happens. I’m not going to go with old line combinations that I wasn’t a part of before. We’re going to come in and give everyone a look and see what works now.”
No matter where Karlsson lines up Tuesday, if he does, the Golden Knights will welcome him back in the needed areas. He was near a point-per-game pace on Dec. 22, but went scoreless in his next seven games before recording an assist at Buffalo.
Karlsson’s absence has also hindered the Golden Knights’ special teams. Vegas is 3-for-22 on the power play in the past eight games; the penalty kill has been solid at 80 percent (20-for-25), but Vegas has allowed three power-play goals the past two games.
“He’s always been a huge part of this team,” Tuch said. “There’s a lot of stuff in his game that we need on a day-to-day basis. He’s worked really hard to get back and I’m really excited to see him back on the ice. His speed, skill, scoring ability, I haven’t seen a lot of players put it together like him.”
Karlsson hasn’t been fully disconnected from everything going on; he was a part of the team meetings after his injury when DeBoer took over. He added it’ll be easier for him to adjust while playing as to watching what’s happening.
“Hopefully I can get right back into it after a couple of shifts,” he said. “I just want to go out and play hockey and that’s my main focus right now.”