Building off a breakthrough: William Karlsson

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights.

When the Columbus Blue Jackets left William Karlsson unprotected in last year’s expansion draft, they could’ve never imagined that he would be able to hit the numbers he did during his first season with the Vegas Golden Knights. Before last season, Karlsson’s previous career-highs in the NHL were nine goals and 20 points (he hit those numbers in 2015-16). So when the 25-year-old managed to score 43 goals and 78 points in 82 games last season, it caught everyone off guard.

“I’m not sure what happened in Columbus, but when your confidence is down it affects you,” Karlsson said, per NHL.com. “All I wanted is a chance to show what I can do. Vegas let me do that. It let a lot of guys do that.

“When I got put with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, things just started clicking.”

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That’s an understatement. The trio developed incredible chemistry. They became the Golden Knights’ go-to line for good reason. Karlsson, Marchessault and Smith combined to score 213 points. They instantly became a matchup nightmare for every one of their opponents.

According to Natural Stat Trick, both Smith and Marchessault saw their numbers numbers dip when they weren’t playing with Karlsson. Marchessault’s CF% was 54.57 percent with Karlsson and 43.77 percent without him. Smith had a CF% of 54.39 percent with Karlsson and 46.31 percent without him. In their defense, Karlsson’s numbers were also much better when he played with those two. So each player really did thrive when they were on the ice together.

Even though Karlsson proved to be an incredible fit in Vegas, negotiating a new contract with him became a bit of a challenge for general manager George McPhee. Committing big money on a long-term deal is a huge risk when the player you’re signing only has one productive season under his belt. The fact that Karlsson had arbitration rights made the situation even more complex.

Instead of going to arbitration, the two sides agreed on a one-year, $5.25 million extension. It’s a risky move for both sides because if the Swede lights up the boxscore again next year, the Golden Knights will have to pay even more money to lock him up for multiple years. If he goes back to posting below-average numbers, then he’ll earn a lot less money on his next deal.

So he has a lot to prove going into this season. There’s a lot on the line. Not only does he have to prove that his individual performance wasn’t a fluke, his teammates also have to show that they can replicate the success they had last season. That doesn’t mean that they have to go back to the Stanley Cup Final (that’s pretty hard to do), but they’ll have to show that they can be competitive on a nightly basis and that they can make another long playoff run.

There’s a lot on the line.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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