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Golden Knights haven’t been afraid of tough roster decisions

The perception of the Vegas Golden Knights roster today compared to when it was first assembled 11 months ago is, to say the least, very, very, very different. Heading into the season the opinion of this team when looking at it on paper was that it was going to be awful. Today, there’s a lot of strong opinions about how the expansion draft was unfair and how 30 other teams around the league don’t know what they’re doing and made a lot of really bad decisions. In hindsight, there is a lot of truth to the latter point because quite a few teams did, in fact, blow it.

There is also the fact that the roster has changed quite a bit from the beginning of the year, not only in terms of the players that are on it, but also in the way they have been used.

One of the big challenges that Vegas and its coaching staff faced this season was having a collection of players thrown together from all over the league, several of whom had little track record in the NHL or had never really had an opportunity to play larger roles. There was a ton of mystery and a lot of tinkering that had to be done to find the right combinations that would work.

A lot of the players that we thought might be key players, or looked like they might be key players, turned out to be anything but, and looking at how players were used early in the season as opposed to now it is clear that not even the Golden Knights knew entirely what they had in a lot of cases.

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM]

Remember back in the offseason when Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the team to come over from Russia and was supposed to be one of their top players? That quickly fell apart and led to a rather bizarre — and seemingly messy — split between the two sides.

William Karlsson ended up being a 43-goal scorer this season and the biggest individual surprise of any player in the league. During the first month of the season he was fifth on the team in terms of average ice-time per game logging just a little more than 17 minutes per game. The now dominant and seemingly unstoppable line of Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jon Marchessault played a grand total of 39 seconds together through the first five games of the season (at which point Marchessault was sidelined with an injury for a few games) and didn’t really become a thing until the second month of the season.

The forward that Vegas leaned on the most in the first month of the season? Well that would be Cody Eakin, of course, as they played him nearly 20 minutes per night. He now plays around 14 minutes per night in the playoffs.

Here is a breakdown of Vegas’ ice-time distribution among forwards in the first month of the season compared to the last month of the season and then in the playoffs.

I excluded players that played less than four games in each time-frame.

The big changes are obviously Eakin going from the top forward down to a third-liner, while the Karlsson-Smith-Marchessault trio became the go-to group. But there are also significant increases for Haula (an extra two minutes per game) and Tuch (three minutes), while Perron saw his ice-tim decrease a bit.

Meanwhile, on defense…

From the very beginning Vegas seemed to know what it had in Schmidt and has leaned on him to be their top defender, a role that he has excelled in.

Deryk Engelland has also, quite shockingly, been one of their top defenders after completely reinventing himself as a player this year.

But in the first month of the season they were playing Luca Sbisa and Brad Hunt nearly 20 minutes per night, while top prospect Shea Theodore was playing in the American Hockey League and not even on the roster. Neither Sbisa or Hunt are significant players on the team now.

Jason Garrison, a veteran that played nearly 19 minutes a night over 70 games a season ago for the Lightning (and also opened the season as Vegas’ highest-paid defenseman) also saw some significant ice-time to start the year. But he was quickly jettisoned to the minor leagues and placed on waivers.

Colin Miller, who ended up leading all of their defenders in scoring, was at the bottom of the usage in the first month of the season.

In the end it’s been a fascinating evolution to watch unfold.

The player that was supposed to be the best forward (Shipachyov) ended up being, quite literally, nothing for them.

The highest paid forwards on the roster are David Clarkson and Tatar.

Clarkson has never — and will never — play a game for the team and is only a part of the organization because Vegas was willing to take his contract, along with Karlsson and a first-round draft pick, in exchange for not taking Josh Anderson or Columbus’ backup goalie in the expansion draft.

Tatar was their big trade deadline acquisition and has been relegated to the press box for most of the playoffs while their other trade deadline pickup, Ryan Reaves, who was never expected to make any sort of an impact, has scored two huge goals.

Their highest paid defenders at the start of the year were Garrison and Clayton Stoner. Garrison played eight games before being waived and relegated to the minor leagues while Stoner never played a single game.

Nothing about this Vegas season has gone as planned or as was expected, and nobody saw this team being as good as it is. Including them.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

House Money: How Golden Knights were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.

Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.

[How the Capitals were built]

It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.

Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.

The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now

Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.

Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.

Anyway, stockpiling defensemen and futures was a huge part of the gameplan. At the time, it seemed like any bit of first-season success would be the gravy. Instead, a nice first entry draft (despite bad draft lottery luck) and a bucket of picks ended up being the cherry on top of this beyond-Cinderella run.

Fleury and other established players

Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.

But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.

Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.

James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …

Karlsson is to Forsberg …

In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.

When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.

While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.

Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.

[What Vegas success says about NHL]

Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.

Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …

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Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans

An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).

To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)

You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.

Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.

/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.

Speaking of former Panthers

Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.

Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.

It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.

Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.

Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.

A fairly clean slate

You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.

Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.

Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.

That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.

As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.

***

No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.

Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.

You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• How Washington was built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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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.

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.

Amid Karlsson trade rumors, Ryan to return for Sens

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During Tuesday’s Insider Trading segment on TSN, Bob McKenzie noted that to trade for Erik Karlsson, a suitor might need to assume the mammoth contract of Bobby Ryan. Ryan, 30, hasn’t played since Feb. 1 and has been limited to 39 games this season because of hand/wrist injury issues that have been plaguing him for years.

Remarkably, a day after that report surfaced, it sounds like Ryan might make his return to the Senators lineup. The current plan is for Ryan to suit up for Ottawa on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace.

There are a number of remarkable things about this development.

Obviously, the timing stands out, as this comes on the heels of that report, not to mention less than a week before Feb. 26’s trade deadline. It’s even amusing that Ryan is slated to face the Lightning, a team that may very well decide that it’s worth it to go all-in and acquire Karlsson, even if it means taking on Ryan. Surely getting a look at him, up close and personal, wouldn’t hurt matters?

(Allow me to think out loud: if Ryan Callahan‘s $5.8 million was involved as well, would that grease the wheels a bit?)

There are a few ways things can go for Ryan.

LTIR bound?

For one thing, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the once-potent sniper might go the way of the LTIR mainstay, much like Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, and others before him. The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson went into exhaustive detail regarding the rather confusing scenarios for Ryan possibly being LTIR material here (sub required).

Even if Ryan’s fated to go on LTIR – which might be a necessity for a contender that already has big commitments, considering the fact that his $7.25M cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22 – the Lightning or some other team might want to see what he can do now. Assuming they can make the cap hits work in 2017-18.

More in the tank?

It’s easy to forget that Ryan isn’t that far removed from some impressive goal-scoring days.

His last 20+ goal season came as recently as 2015-16, when he collected 22 in 81 games. He basically averaged 20 goals through his first three seasons in Ottawa, as Ryan totaled 63 from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Ryan showed flashes of that brilliance during the Senators’ remarkable run within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He managed six goals and 15 points in 19 playoff games, including a brilliant OT-winner against the Penguins:

For once, the bounces were going Ryan’s way, as he enjoyed the best playoff work of his career and connected on 28.57 percent of his shots on goal. So, yes, those results were inflated … yet they came during the 2017 postseason. If healthy, is that unreasonable to imagine Ryan posting nice numbers in Tampa Bay and becoming more than just a throw-in? Could he help even if his injury luck continues to come and go?

If Ryan was forced to be part of a Karlsson trade, the dream scenario for the Lightning or another contender might be something like Clarke MacArthur‘s 2017 playoff run with Ottawa. Maybe Ryan contributes to a postseason push, then lands on LTIR?

One other thought

It’s important to note that trading Ryan wouldn’t necessarily be the best-case scenario for Ottawa. (It might be for owner Eugene Melnyk, mind you, as it’s basically an open secret that he’s very … cost-conscious at the moment.)

To accept Ryan’s contract – even at a discounted rate – a bidding team would likely give up less actual, beneficial pieces in a Karlsson trade. Perhaps ridding themselves off Ryan’s contract would cost the Senators a draft pick, prospect, or some other key piece? It’s certainly something to consider.

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.