The driving force behind the stunning story that is the Vegas Golden Knights has been their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. The trio has spent much of the season together and has quickly become one of the most productive lines in hockey. And the numbers speak for themselves.
When Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights are outscoring their opponents by a 26-15 margin, have controlled more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts, and have close to 60 percent of the total scoring chances (data via Natural Stat Trick).
Those are dominant numbers and stack up favorably with any trio in the NHL.
Given that success it’s kind of amazing to look back at how Vegas ended up acquiring that group when they were piecing together their first roster.
A lot has been made of the expansion draft rules that allowed Vegas to put together a roster that was significantly better than any recent expansion team in NHL history, and they definitely had more talent to pick from than Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville, Atlanta, Anaheim, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose.
Those rules, which forced teams to expose players to the expansion draft that they probably did not want to lose, helped create a number of trades.
Two of those deals helped Vegas assemble its game-changing top-line.
Let’s start with Karlsson, who is currently the team’s leading goal-scorer and one of the top-five goal scorers in the NHL. Considering what Karlsson has done in his career before this season it is one of the unlikeliest individual performances in the league this season.
As part of the trade the Columbus Blue Jackets sent a 2017 first-round pick, a 2019 third-round pick, and David Clarkson to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Karlsson in the expansion draft.
What did Columbus get out of the trade? For one, it got out from the remainder of Clarkson’s contract that still has three more years on it. It also allowed the Blue Jackets to keep together what it figured to be a bigger part of its young core than Karlsson was going to be, specifically forward Josh Anderson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo.
Even before any of the players in the deal played a single game in the NHL this season Vegas managed to expand on that trade by taking Columbus’ first-round pick (No. 24 overall) and flipping it to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick (Nick Suzuki) and a third-round pick in 2019 in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting veteran forward Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft. Thorburn, an unrestricted free agent on July, signed with the St. Louis Blues.
That means at the end of the day the Golden Knight received William Karlsson, Nick Suzuki (a top-15 pick), and a pair of 2019 draft picks (second-and third-round) in exchange for taking David Clarkson’s contract and simply not taking Anderson or Korpisalo in the expansion draft.
Given what has happened in the first half of the 2017-18 season it is a fascinating transaction and it is going to be extremely interesting to see how the careers of Karlsson, Anderson and Korpisalo progress from here (and that doesn’t even get into the three prospects they will get from the draft choices).
Right now it’s looking like an absolute steal for Vegas as Karlsson has almost as many goals (22) as Anderson has total points (24), while Korpisalo has a .904 save percentage in a backup role behind Sergei Bobrovsky.
Karlsson vs. Anderson is going to be the real development to watch. Anderson is a fine player and seems to be a great fit for the way Columbus plays. But he is not doing what Karlsson has done for Vegas this season, even if it is completely out of nowhere.
Before this season Karlsson had scored only 18 goals in 173 games with the Ducks and Blue Jackets. He has already exceeded that total in 41 games.
A big part of that success is the fact he is cruising along with a league-best 25.9 percent shooting percentage after scoring on only 8 percent of his shots before this season.
Of the eight players that have scored at least 20 goals this season Karlsson is not only the only one of them that has done so on fewer than 100 shots on goal, he still has not even hit 90(!) shots on goal. Anders Lee is the only other 20-goal scorer at the moment that is still under 110 shots (108).
If he maintains that shooting percentage for the entire season it would be almost unheard of in the modern NHL. In the history of the league there have only been 37 players that recorded at least 100 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage north of 25 percent. Thirty of those performances came between 1978 and 1989 when goal-scoring in the NHL hit its peak. Only two of them (Cam Neely in 1993-94 and Mike Ribeiro in 2007-08) came after 1993.
Obviously, when a player sees that sort of a drastic shooting percentage spike out of nowhere the first instinct is to say that it’s unsustainable and the player is due for a big regression at some point. And that is almost certainly going to be the case here with Karlsson. It is just a matter of how much of a regression there is. And even if it is significant and eventually takes him back to his normal career levels, Vegas still has three future prospects coming through the pipeline as a result of that trade. And that regression happens, the Golden Knights have one of the top goal scorers in the league this season. You can not take away those goals.
The other two parts of the line came from the Florida Panthers when they sent Smith and Marchessault to the Golden Knights in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
That trade came one year after the Panthers had signed Smith to a five-year contract extension that was going to pay him $5 million per season and include a partial no-trade clause. With Smith coming off of a down year in 2016-17 the Panthers traded him to the Golden Knights.
That came on the same day of the expansion draft where the Golden Knights selected Marchessault (though it was never officially confirmed, it was reported at the time that taking Marchessault being left unprotected and selected by Vegas was the incentive for the Golden Knights to take on Smith’s contract).
While Smith’s numbers dropped a bit for the Panthers in 2016-17, Marchessault was one of the players on that Panthers team that did not disappoint and excelled in his first full-time action in the NHL, leading the team with 30 goals.
So far this season Marchessault has proven that his 2016-17 season was not a fluke. He is on pace for another 30-goal performance, has already topped his assist total from a year ago, and has posted excellent possession numbers. His first half with Vegas has already landed him a six-year contract extension to remain with the team.
Smith, meanwhile, is right near his career averages when it comes to goal-scoring, shot generation and possession and has bounced back nicely from a down season. His assist numbers have spiked, though, and that is probably to be expected given that he is playing alongside one 30-goal scorer (Marchessault) and another player that is shooting the lights out the way Karlsson is. He has already assisted on 14 of Karlsson’s goals with 10 of them being the primary assist.
Vegas definitely took advantage of the opportunity to select better players than any other expansion team in league history and the front office deserves a lot of credit for capitalizing on that. It’s also been the perfect storm of a lot of things going there way, from Florida looking to get out from Smith’s contract and leaving a 30-goal scorer exposed, to Karlsson having an historical level of shooting success, to all three players forming an instant chemistry.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.