Should Golden Knights go long or short-term with William Karlsson?

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Salary arbitration hearings – or the threat of such hearings – usually involve a player citing an asking price that probably feels close to a worst-case scenario for their teams. Leave it to William Karlsson to break the mold in this area, too, as the Vegas Golden Knights should instead consider this an invitation to sign the mysterious scorer to a great deal.

Before we bat around some potential strategies, consider the meat and potatoes. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Golden Knights’ suggested price is $3.5 million, while Karlsson’s ask is $6.5 million.

Riding the hot hand

While paying Karlsson $6.5M per season would be a significant risk for the Golden Knights, it sure feels like it could have been worse. After all, it wouldn’t have been that outrageous for the 25-year-old forward to ask for the moon after generating a whopping 43 goals and 78 points last season. In reality, Karlsson’s demands seem remarkably earthbound.

Now, this is the part of the program where the studio audience yells “But Karlsson’s season was a fluke!”

No doubt, Karlsson played over his floppy-haired head at times in 2017-18. After never hitting double-digits in goals with Columbus despite playing in 81 games during his past two seasons, Karlsson flourished beyond just about anyone’s wildest expectations. If you converse with analytics-leaning hockey people, you might not even be able to utter William Karlsson’s full name before someone blurts out “unsustainable” or even mentions his exact 23.4 shooting percentage.

Yes, it’s true that Karlsson will almost certainly fail to flirt with last season’s rate of scoring on almost one out of every four shots on goal. It’s unlikely that Karlsson will be in Mike Bossy (21.2 shooting percentage for his career) or Mario Lemieux (19 percent) for his career. And, yes, this season was undeniably staggering, even for those who believed that he was a diamond in the rough.

This thread captures a lot of the mixed messages from Karlsson’s breakthrough season, and why it’s not so outrageous to wonder if he can still be a very useful player for Vegas.

The Golden Knights don’t need that out of Karlsson, though; not at what could end up being a very reasonable price tag. If you split the difference between their low-ball $3.5M offer and Karlsson’s $6.5M ask, you’d get $5M, which happens to be the cap hits for his partners in crime Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Smith already came to the Golden Knights with that AAV, and Marchessault signed mid-season, so Karlsson could probably drive up his price a bit since he was able to see his full breakthrough year to fruition.

Here are some ideas regarding what a fairly long-term deal could look like:

Really, this is where things get interesting.

Play it safe or swing for the fences?

Should the Golden Knights allow the arbitration process to push them toward an affordable “bridge” deal, whether the actual hearing happens or the sides compromise before the deadline hits? Such a plan would mitigate the risk of the Golden Knights signing Karlsson long-term only to realize that he’s a lot closer to the low-scoring, depth forward he was in Columbus than the crafty, high-scoring top-line guy he was last season.

Locking Karlsson up for more term would be a bigger risk, yet it could also reap greater rewards.

If Karlsson is even in the ballpark of what he showed in 2017-18, then a cap hit in the ranges Cap Friendly mentioned could allow Vegas to enjoy some serious competitive advantages over opponents saddled with bad contracts, especially as the cap ceiling rises.

Vegas isn’t just paying two-thirds of that breakout line $5M apiece for next season; they’re getting a bargain on Marchessault and Smith for quite some time. Smith’s covered through 2021-22, while Marchessault’s extension begins in 2018-19 and expires after 2023-24.

More than just a hot streak?

Let’s say that Karlsson might produce at a similar pace in some ways going forward, only his puck luck would be more … human. If you bumped Karlsson’s shooting percentage on 184 SOG down to 11 percent, he still would have scored 20 goals in 2017-18. And that’s assuming that he won’t pull the trigger more often, particularly if his Midas touch turns closer to silver.

You could argue that his strong work during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs could provide a portal into what he might be capable of when he’s not on as much of a hot streak.

Karlsson’s shooting percentage was still high, but not out of this world, at 14 percent during that run. In 20 games logging the minutes of an elite player (21:40 TOI per night), Karlsson scored seven goals and eight assists for 15 points. Those points came during the highest stakes moments, usually against the best competition opponents can offer.

Yes, yes, those four rounds of work rank as a small sample size, yet the point is that Karlsson’s flourished when given opportunities so far. For all we know, he might just be … for real. Or at least for real enough to be worth what sure seems like a pretty palatable price.

Personally, I’d rather lock down Karlsson at an affordable rate and use all that extra money to try to assemble another line at or near this level.

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Chances are, both the Golden Knights and Karlsson will slow down, particularly in 2018-19. That’s by no means the end of the world, and Vegas might feel like it has an ace up its sleeve if they gamble a bit on more term with Karlsson.

Either way, it’s a pretty promising position to be in, but pressing all the right buttons could transform the Golden Knights from an astounding story to a regular contender.

Which way would you lean regarding Karlsson’s next contract if you were running the Golden Knights?

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.