David Clarkson

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William Karlsson has been the Golden Knights’ best find

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The debut season for the Vegas Golden Knights has been, to this point, an incredible success.

They are off to one of the best starts ever for an NHL expansion team and they have done it while being decimated by injury in goal, already using four different players at the position, including a 19-year-old junior goalie on an emergency recall.

Even with the injuries they still find themselves in playoff contention more than a quarter of the way through the season and have been by far the biggest surprise in the NHL.

The key to their success has been a surprisingly potent attack offensively that currently has them sitting sixth in the NHL in goals scored. We looked earlier this season that the expansion draft rules, along with an amazing trade with the Florida Panthers that netted them Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, gave the Golden Knights more talent than just about any other expansion team in league history.

But for as good as the bigger name players like Marchessault, James Neal and David Perron have been, their best — and perhaps most surprising — find to this point has been forward William Karlsson.

Karlsson’s arrival in Vegas came by way of trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets that also netted them a first-round pick, a second-round pick and the contract belonging to David Clarkson. In return, all Vegas had to do was allow Columbus to retain players like forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo in the expansion draft.

It’s turned out to be an amazing trade for Vegas because it not only received two draft picks (that ended up resulting in Nick Suzuki as well as the 2019 pick) but also the player that is currently their leading scorer and top offensive player.

Entering play on Sunday, Karlsson has already shattered his previous career high goals and is just one point away from matching his career high in that area. Prior to this season he had never scored more than nine goals in a season and never topped 25 points. In his first 25 games this season he is already up to 14 goals and 24 points.

A lot of that offensive success is being driven by a 25 percent shooting percentage that represents a significant spike over his previous career averages and one that is probably not going to be a long-term thing. But it’s not just the goal-scoring that has been huge for the Golden Knights.

He is also driving possession with a 53 percent shot attempts share and is one of just two players (Alex DeBrincat being the other) to play in at least 25 games this season and not commit a single penalty. Even if his shooting percentage takes a dive in the second half of the season (and it almost certainly will because almost nobody maintains a 25 percent shooting percentage) he is still bringing a ton of value with his ability to help control the pace of the game while also completely staying out of the penalty box.

He has always been a talented player that had flashed some potential in the NHL, but he never really had an opportunity to get a significant role to really show what he can do.

He has had that opportunity this season in Vegas centering the top line between Marchessault and Smith and it has resulted in a breakout season on an individual level while also helping to drive one of the biggest surprises in the league on a team level.

Vegas Golden Knights hand out rare lengthy contract

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Early in the Vegas Golden Knights’ ongoing, still-surprising hot start as a franchise, PHT noted one thing that’s unlikely to change this season: motivation.

NHL players are already generally a motivated lot, but when you put financial futures on the line, you’ll often see a surge in results. Take a look at the Golden Knights’ Cap Friendly page and you’ll see a ton of players with one or two years remaining on their current contracts. Greed can be good, at least in the short term, for a sports team’s fortunes.

While the franchise would likely draw the most attention for high-scoring, pending UFAs like James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault, there’s a particularly noticeable glut of defensemen on one-year deals.

That group got a little smaller on Wednesday, as the Golden Knights announced a four-year, $10 million extension for former Kings blueliner Brayden McNabb.

From here, it seems like a fairly benign move.

It’s worth noting that the move draws at least a little bit of mockery on Hockey Twitter.

McNabb, 26, is averaging 19:30 TOI per night through his first 20 regular-season games with the Golden Knights. Peeking at his Hockey Reference page’s quick possession stats, it’s interesting to note an unusual disparity in his Corsi Relative (-.5) versus Fenwick Relative (+3.6) rates compared to his teammates.

It turns out that he’s been blocking buckets of shots so far this season, leading the Golden Knights in that category. Fenwick is a Corsi-like measure except with blocked shots removed from the equation, so perhaps some of a person’s view of McNabb comes down to subtle preferences.

(He’s tied for 12th overall in the NHL in blocked shots, despite missing a few games, by the way.)

Really, if the Golden Knights’ rationale is “well, this makes Gerard Gallant happy,” then it seems like a reasonable move.

Beyond McNabb, Vegas only has Nate Schmidt and Brad Hunt under contracts beyond this season, and both of their deals expire after 2018-19. If you want to be cute about it, you could call McNabb “the defenseman of the future” in Vegas, at least right now.

Discounting David Clarkson‘s dead cap money (which expires after 2019-20), the Golden Knights also have these forwards and goalies locked up for at least two seasons, ignoring players in their farm system for the sake of simplicity:

Forwards

Goalies

You can look at that list a number of ways, including from two very different perspectives. Optimists will note how clean that cap is, with few deals threatening “albatross” status (beyond Clarkson’s, which the Golden Knights are essentially laundering for a fee). On the other hand, anxious types will worry about all the potential mistakes that could be made, including letting the wrong players go and/or retaining players who are playing over their heads.

Overall, this is another reminder that GM George McPhee has generally done a great job of accumulating assets while avoiding the sort of attachments that can submarine a franchise. Even if McNabb ends up being a bland bottom-pairing guy, this deal really isn’t that bad; the term would be the main issue if he really flops.

Of course, this is a mere appetizer for future decisions. Will GMGM ultimately keep or sell guys like Neal, Marchessault, David Perron, and William Karlsson? Finding out those answers should be almost as fun as observing this Cinderella story in action.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Red Wings on Witkowski suspension: ‘Punishment doesn’t fit the crime’

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A sports league doles out suspensions and fines for a variety of reasons, including the hope that losing game checks might deter future bad behavior.

When it comes to the fans, many want justice, and that’s where things can get a little fuzzier. It’s especially interesting to consider areas of subjectivity vs. rules that are as plain as day.

One can see shades of the frustration that comes from the over-the-glass delay of game penalty in the reactions to Detroit Red Wings winger Luke Witkowski getting an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that wild brawl, egged on by Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill hit the nail on the head in that regard.

For Witkowski, it’s a painful lesson that he needs to find a happy medium between following the rules and engaging in “old-time hockey.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Witkowski said, via the Red Wings website. “Honestly, I didn’t know that was a rule. I obviously, I know now. I knew it was a rule you couldn’t jump the boards. It’s kind of a gray area with still being on the bench and the door being open. But lesson learned, I guess. Move on from here.”

The sad truth for Witkowski, 27, is that he won’t be eligible to move on in the form of a game until Dec. 9. And that’s assuming that he won’t get passed by as far as roster changes go.

Perhaps the silver lining is that other players might learn from Witkowski’s mistake and avoid drawing that automatic suspension. We’ve seen it before, such as with David Clarkson‘s delayed debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so there are some examples for NHL players willing to play attention.

Besides, it’s tough to miss a brawl like that, which you can watch one more time in the video above this post’s headline.

As far as Tkachuk goes, we’re still waiting to find out if he’ll sit a few games himself. He’s reportedly having a telephone hearing with the NHL to determine supplemental discipline.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Horton and Lupul fail Maple Leafs physicals

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When it comes to NHL players failing physicals, expected news can still be sad news.

It’s unfortunate – though maybe for the best – that Clarke MacArthur failed his physical with the Ottawa Senators. A long run, with some great moments with the same Chicago Blackhawks, might be over for Michal Rozsival after failing his.

Even ones that feel like formalities are a drag because we’re reminded of what once was, and perhaps what could have been had these players stayed even reasonably healthy.

So, it’s not surprising that Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton failed their Toronto Maple Leafs physicals, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported. Both cases are unfortunate nonetheless.

Lupul, 33, stated that he wanted to continue his career when it was clear he’d enter the 2016-17 season on injured reserve. His $5.25 million cap hit expires after this coming season.

If this is it for Lupul, he can look back at multiple 20+ goal seasons and two strong playoff runs during his career.

Horton, 32, will see his $5.3M cap hit expire in three seasons. He won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins and enjoyed some strong years as a power forward, yet he barely suited up for the Columbus Blue Jackets team that signed him to his mammoth contract and was traded to Toronto in a bizarre swap of cap hits (David Clarkson, his spiritual salary cap sibling, went to Columbus).

In a strange twist, both forwards look like they’ll finish their careers with nearly identical point totals; Lupul is at 420 while Horton scored 421.

Vegas locks up former Ranger Lindberg: two years, $3.4M

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The Vegas Golden Knights announced the signing of Oscar Lindberg to a two-year, $3.4 million contract on Tuesday.

Lindberg, 25, was Vegas’ expansion-draft selection from the New York Rangers, who addressed his departure (and arguably the trade of Derek Stepan) with a move of their own in landing David Desharnais.

Lindberg was still, to some extent, proving himself with the Rangers, who amassed the sort of depth that forced him to battle for minutes. He saw his average TOI drop from 12:11 in 2015-16 to just 10:50 per contest last season.

Even then, he’s shown glimpses of being an interesting piece, and Lindberg should get a golden opportunity to show what he can do with the Golden Knights.

Cap Friendly places their forward spending at $40 million after this signing, although the likes of David Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski inflate those numbers quite a bit.