William Karlsson and the most unexpected goal scoring performance ever

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One of the biggest factors — among many — in the Vegas Golden Knights’ rapid ascent to the top of the NHL standings in their first year of existence has been the play and development of William Karlsson.

The Golden Knights acquired Karlsson, along with a first-round draft pick, in one of their many expansion draft deals. This particular deal saw them get Karlsson and the pick in exchange for taking on David Clarkson‘s contract and not taking Josh Anderson and a small handful of other players off of the Blue Jackets’ unprotected list.

As we wrote a couple of months ago in looking at the trades that built Vegas’ top line, it is going to be fascinating to watch the careers of players like Karlsson and Anderson progress from here to truly evaluate that decision by the Blue Jackets.

With Karlsson currently sixth in the league in goals (35), and Anderson currently sitting at 29 total points, it is looking like a steal for the Golden Knights.

But in Columbus’ defense, nobody should have seen this coming. Literally. No one. Because there was nothing in Karlsson’s background or in NHL history to suggest that a season like this was coming. Not that it should excuse sending him and a first-round pick away to protect Anderson or a backup goalie, just nobody could have imagined this sort of season from Karlsson.

Prior to this season Karlsson had played 183 games in the NHL and had scored just 18 goals as a member of the Anaheim Ducks and Blue Jackets.

Let’s just take a look to consider how improbable it is for a player with that sort track record and start to their career to have a season quite like this.

Using the Hockey-Reference.com database I searched for forwards, going back to 1967 (the post-Original Six era), that fit the following criteria that matched Karlsson’s career prior to this season.

  • Played in at least 160 NHL games before turning 25
  • Had scored fewer than 20 total goals
  • Had a career shooting percentage lower than 8 percent

There were only 52 players that matched that (including Karlsson).

It was predominantly a collection fourth-liners, a few enforcers, and players that had washed out of the NHL shortly after their age 24 season.

None of the players on that list other than Karlsson ever went on to have a 30-goal season in the NHL (Karlsson already has 35 with 15 games to play. He has a real shot at 40 goals).

Only three of them went on to have even one 20 goal season.

  • Walt McKechnie, a former No. 6 overall pick that went on to play in nearly 1,000 games, had four 20-goal seasons in his career. He topped out at 26 goals in 1975-76.
  • Kelly Buchberger in his age 25 season scored a career high 20 goals for the Edmonton Oilers. He never scored more than 12 in any season after that, though he did carve out a pretty successful career as a fourth-liner and played in more than 1,000 games.
  • Steve Ott scored 22 in his age 27 season and was a pretty consistently worth 10-12 goals over his career.

When you look at players that have performed like Karlsson did throughout his career they just don’t typically tend to develop into anything more than what they had shown to that point.

By the time you turn 25 and have played two full season’s worth of games in the NHL that is usually a good indication of what type of player you are going to be. After all, most players tend to hit their peak production around the ages of 24 or 25, and if you haven’t played a ton of games to that point it is difficult to really break into the league as a regular (it happens from time to time, but those are exceptions — not the rules).

But here is Karlsson, emerging as one of the best goal scorers in the league, at least for one season.

It has been a perfect storm for him and Vegas. He immediately clicked on a line with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, a trio that has been as good as any other line in the league.

He is also riding a 23.8 shooting percentage that is tops in the league and one of the best individual shooting seasons in recent NHL history.

Again using the Hockey Reference database you can find that there have only been 74 instances in the history of the league where a player shot higher than 23 percent on a minimum of 125 shots on goal in a season. The overwhelming majority of them happened between the firewagon hockey days of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Only four of them (including the one Karlsson is currently) on have happened since 1995.

Alex Tanguay scored 29 goals while shooting 23.2 percent in 2005-06. He followed that up with a 22-goal season in 2006-07.

Petr Prucha scored 30 goals as a rookie in 2005-06 on a 23.1 percent mark. He scored 22 the next season then slowly faded out of the league after that, scoring just 26 goals over the next four years.

T.J. Oshie scored on 23.1 percent of his shots a year ago for the Washington Capitals and signed a massive eight-year contract extension after the season. This season he has 12 goals, with only four coming at even-strength.

No matter how you look at it, Karlsson’s production this season is one of the most unbelievable and unexpected individual performances in the league. It has also helped drive one of the most unbelievable and unexpected team performances in the history of the league.

Maybe even in the history of professional sports.

Maybe he is better than he showed in Anaheim and Columbus and simply needed a bigger opportunity with the right linemates to truly shine as an offensive player. Everything we have to evaluate players suggests he is not going to score on 23 percent of his shots again next season or throughout his career.

But you can not take away the pucks that have found the back of the net this season, and it has been a ton of fun to watch to unfold.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.