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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.

The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Oilers’ Lucic ejected after dangerous cross-check to Blues’ Sundqvist

NHL
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Milan Lucic is paid a lot of money for a lot of nothing these days, but he may have some of his $6 million per season salary taken away from him after a nasty cross-check on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues holding a 6-2 lead with just over five minutes left in the third period — garbage time, as they say — Lucic made his presence felt as he drilled Oskar Sundvist from behind long after he had shot the puck on Anthony Stolarz.

The needless hit sent Sundqvist flying into the boards, who needed some assistance from the trainers before leaving the game. He did not return after favoring his right arm as he skated off hunched over.

Lucic was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and given a game misconduct on the play. The senselessness of the hit is likely to land him in hot water with the NHL, too.

The Oilers still have four more years of this to endure, too.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time this season (if you count preseason games) that Sundqvist has been on the receiving end of a bone-headed and dirty hit.

Tom Wilson got the book thrown at him for this awful shot.

Earlier in the game, Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon — good friends — went toe-to-toe in a friendship-testing heavyweight tilt.

There were some haymakers thrown in this one.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals prepare for Lightning test with warm-up win against Devils

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The Washington Capitals didn’t have to expend a lot of energy on Tuesday night, and that’s a good thing.

Washington will play the second half of a back to back against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (live on NBCSN), so the New Jersey Devils were the warmup, and Washington made quick work of them in a 4-1 win.

Washington led just 2:52 into the first period before giving up a goal with one second left in the frame. The late adversity didn’t phase the defending Stanley Cup winners, however. Brett Connolly regained the lead 5:57 into the second with his 20th (which stood as the eventual game-winner) and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson scored a 1:12 apart to ice the game with a period to play.

The rest of the game was a cure for insomnia.

Pheonix Copley got the start in this one as the Caps rested Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s big game. Copley made 19 saves for his sixth straight win. He barely looked like he broke a sweat.

With the New York Islanders losing 5-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals moved two points ahead of their Metropolitan Division rivals for first place. The Caps have won nine of their past 11 as they try to win another division title.

Much of the game was centered around Alex Ovechkin and if he’d hit 50 on the night.

He came into the game with 48 career goals and faced a mouthwatering matchup against a poor Devils team. But Ovi was held at bay, collecting just an assist in the game on a nice dish to Wilson.

The Devils have had a rough March thus far.

They’ve won just twice and have been shutout three times as the race for Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) continues for them. They’re on 63 points, fifth worst in the NHL and entered Tuesday with a 9.5 percent chance of taking down the first pick on April 9’s NHL Draft Lottery.

Kenny Agostino, who scored New Jersey’s lone goal, now has six points in his past six games — in a bright spot in a lot of darkness this season for the Devils.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fight involving Bruins’ Chara plays out exactly as one might expect

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Ever try to punch a giraffe in the face? Me neither, but New York Islanders forward Matt Martin has a story to tell.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a man few want to fight. He towers over everyone in the NHL and his reach is close enough to double that of his nearest opponent that the best you can often open for is a good shadow boxing practice because the odds of connecting are so terribly low.

Martin got exactly that when he and Chara dropped the glove just four seconds into the second period off the opening faceoff.

The two exchanged rights before Chara threw a nasty, downward-directed bomb that caught Martin flush, knocking him to the ground. To Martin’s credit, he bounced back up and tried in vain to hit Chara. He had no such luck.

Chara ended the scrap by basically stiff-arming Martin to the ground followed by the congratulatory pat on the back from the 6-foot-9 man.

It’s respectable that Martin wanted to try and give his team a boost, although they were only down 1-0 at that point of the game. Ambitious, but respectable.

Chara, meanwhile, just turned 42 on Monday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck