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William Karlsson’s potential arbitration case is NHL’s most intriguing

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There were 44 restricted free agents to officially file for salary arbitration this past week, a pretty significant spike from the number we saw just one year ago. If history is any guide most of those contract situations will be resolved before arbitration is actually needed because neither the team nor the player wants to go through that unpleasantness.

If there is a situation that seems destined to reach that point this summer it just might be William Karlsson and the Vegas Golden Knights, because it might be one of the most difficult and complex contract situations out of the entire RFA group.

Karlsson’s 2017-18 season was simply outstanding.

He finished as the NHL’s third-leading goal-scorer (43).

He posted outstanding possession numbers as part of Vegas’ top line between Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

He absolutely shattered all of his previous career numbers — not just from any individual season, but his *entire* career numbers. A fact that Vegas Twitter account was happy to point out on Friday.

This situation — which absolutely nobody saw coming — presents a lot of problems for the team, and Karlsson, when it comes working out a new contract for this season.

When you look at Karlsson’s actual performance in 2017-18 it absolutely justifies a significant pay raise over the $1 million salary he made the past two years. But how much and how long should Vegas be reasonably comfortable committing to at this point?

The problem for Karlsson is that Vegas has every reason to be skeptical that this type of performance is repeatable. His 23.4 percent shooting percentage was not only the best mark in the NHL, it was the third-highest mark of any NHL player over the past 20 years, finishing behind only Mike Ribeiro’s 25.2 mark in 2007-08 and Curtis Glencross’ 23.6 in 2011-12. That number is almost certain to regress this upcoming season, which would mean an obvious decrease in goals.

At this point the Golden Knights still do not know what they have in Karlsson, and signing him to any sort of a long-term contract extension is probably just too much of a risk. That means a short-term bridge deal is almost certainly in the cards. And that is where things could get a little ugly.

Given that Karlsson only has one year of this level of production to his credit the Golden Knights are going to have a pretty compelling case in arbitration, meaning there probably is not much reason for them to come forward with any sort of a sizable contract offer — even on a short-term bridge deal. That likely means that even after scoring 43 goals this past season and helping lead a first-year expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final he probably still will not fully cash in on that production.

One or way or another he is probably going to have to prove it again in 2018-19 before that can happen. If it ever happens. Unfortunately for Karlsson it seems unlikely that another 23 percent shooting percentage and 40-goal season is on the horizon … unless he finds a way to completely shock the hockey world for a second year in a row.

Related: Forty-four players file for salary arbitration

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.

Will Hoffman, Panthers get last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

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.

Golden Knights could really use one of their fast starts in Game 5

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History is not on the side of the Vegas Golden Knights entering Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

After losing the past three games they are now facing a deficit that only one team has ever overcome in the Stanley Cup Final. After a magical regular season and a seemingly dominant run through the first three rounds of the playoffs everything that was working for them has suddenly disappeared.

The defense is giving up too many chances and Marc-Andre Fleury is not bailing them out in net anymore.

The first line, including top player Jonathan Marchessault, has gone quiet and none of the other lines are picking up the slack.

Every break and bounce suddenly seems to be going against them.

[Related: Golden Knights hoping to learn from mistakes and mount Cup comeback]

The other thing that has disappeared at times in this series? The way they have jumped on teams early in games with ridiculously fast starts. Sometimes we make a little too much of scoring the first goal — it’s important because it means you scored a goal, but it’s not always everything — but early in this postseason the Golden Knights seemed to have a knack for flying out of the gate and overwhelming teams in the early minutes.

It is not just that they have scored the first goal in 14 of their 19 games (with a 12-2 record in those games) it’s that in five of those games they have scored a goal within the first five minutes of the drop of the puck. Four times they have done it at home. When it happens, it almost seems to be like a tidal wave of offense where one goal quickly turns into two, and before you know it the game seems like it’s over in the first period. Their season started that way in the first game and it seemed to continue throughout the year.

They had a similar start in Game 4 on the road in Washington and carried the play early, keeping the Capitals back on their heels for the first time since Game 1 of the series. The problem: They hit two posts, including a game-changing and potentially series-changing moment when James Neal was looking at an open net and fired the puck off the far post.

Everything unraveled after that.

The crazy thing is Game 4 was probably Vegas’ best game of the series (perhaps even better than their Game 1 win) even though it ended with what was by far its worst result. If they can replicate that same effort, including the way they started the game, it would be a great start to them digging their way out of this deficit.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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.

Golden Knights hoping to learn from mistakes and mount Cup comeback

LAS VEGAS — Nate Schmidt put the challenge facing the Vegas Golden Knights pretty succinctly.

“There’s really no Plan B or backdoor to go to here. There’s no side entrance to get into,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “You’ve got to face this thing head on. There’s no way to do it besides fight your way out of the corner.”

The Golden Knights face the prospect of their dream first season coming to an end Thursday night in Game 5. The Washington Capitals have won three straight after dropping Game 1 and the play of both teams has been heading in opposite directions. The challenge for Vegas is to try not to look at it as having to win three in a row. Just worry about one game.

“There’s nothing to focus on the big picture. Big picture’s not there if we don’t win Game 5,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal. “If you’re looking ahead then that’s not good. I think you’ve got focus on our first period, our first shift, take it a period at a time. I know that’s said, but that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t overlook anything. We’re prepared.”

“I’m not thinking the series, I’m just thinking [Game 5],” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “If you start thinking we’ve got to win the next three games, sometimes it gets demoralizing. We’re going to do what we did all year. We’re just going to focus on the next game and see where it takes us.”

Vegas hasn’t been able to figure out Braden Holtby since Game 1, scoring only three times at even strength in the last three games. They also haven’t been able to find successful passing or shooting lanes, thanks to the sticks and bodies of the Capitals getting in the way. It’s just another obstacle in the way for a Golden Knights team that has faced challenges all season long and overcome them. 

This challenge, however, is of a different sort. Vegas had trailed in series only once this postseason until after Game 3, and if they’re to do what was unthinkable a year ago and win the Stanley Cup, then they need to have already lost their final game of the season. There’s no more margin for error.

“A lot of people were saying we wouldn’t win that many games this year, we wouldn’t make it to the playoffs, and we find ourselves here,” said Neal. “For sure, we have the ability to prove people wrong and we’ve done that all year. We’ve got a solid group in here. We believe in each other. The first few games I don’t think we got to our game. We didn’t play how we wanted to play. For them, they did a good job of limiting our opportunities. I think we just need to play like we did last game.”

The Golden Knights, despite the 6-2 final score, did play better in Game 4 than they did in Games 2 and 3, but it still wasn’t good enough to best the Capitals. Six of their 11 goals in this series have come from their fourth line or their defense. They need their best players to be their best players in order to have a chance at a comeback, and they need Marc-Andre Fleury to be better as well. There’s still plenty to improve upon.

“That’s something when you look back at the first four games, you realize that’s not what you want. That’s not the gameplan or the blueprint of what makes us successful,” said Schmidt. “But at the same time it shows you the blueprint of what makes us not successful. You look at what didn’t work in the game, sometimes you have to go back and rewind the tape. You can’t look at everything as being sunshine and daisies. We look at what can be adjusted with our game and then you learn from that. 

“If you can’t learn from your mistakes then you deserve what you get.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Kuznetsov climbs to the top

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For the second update in a row we have a new leader in the Conn Smythe race. This time it is Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov taking over the top spot with what has been, to this point, one of the most productive and impactful postseason runs we have seen in recent NHL memory.

He is not just recording points, he is taking over games.

Kuznetsov, of course, does not care about any of this right now because there is still a pretty big job to do before the award actually gets handed out to somebody. Following the Capitals’ Game 4 win on Monday night he was asked if he cared about winning the Conn Smythe and simply said “What’s that going to get you? Nothing, right?”

This does not mean that we can not talk about it.

To the rankings!

1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. His production has been insanely consistent for the Capitals this postseason with at least one point in 18 of the team’s 23 playoff games, including 13 of the past 14 games heading into Game 5 on Thursday night. The only game during that stretch where he did not record a point was the game where he only played four minutes before leaving with what seemed to be a pretty significant upper-body injury that seemingly put at least part of the series in doubt for him. Whatever it was, it was not significant enough to keep him out of the lineup for Games 3 and 4 where he combined for six points, including four in the Capitals’ 6-2 rout on Monday night.

His 31 total points are not only the most in the NHL this postseason, but also put him among the top-25 best performances in NHL history for a single playoff run. Considering the era he is playing in it is even more impressive. Among the players in the top-25 only four of them, including Kuznetsov, came after 1994: Evgeni Malkin had 36 in 2008-09, Sidney Crosby had 31 that same year, and Joe Sakic had 34 in 1995-96. Among players that have played in at least 20 playoff games in a single postseason his 1.17 point per game mark is tied for the 15th best all-time. The overall production does not even get into the big goals that he has scored along the way, including a series-clinching overtime goal in the second round and what proved to be a game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It is not just the consistency or the “big moment goals” that is impressive. He has also had monster games where he has completely taken over. He already has four three-point games this postseason, including a pair of four-point games, two things that only a small handful of players have done in Stanley Cup Playoff history. Even though he did not actually score the game-winning goal in any of those games he still probably helped single-handedly created enough offense to get his team wins. In those four games he produced 14 of his 31 points this postseason, with 11 of them being primary points, meaning he either scored the goal or had the primary assist on another.

Why does that matter? Just consider that since the start of the 2000 postseason teams that have a player record at least three points in a playoff game win that game more than 90 percent of the time. When they have a player with a four-point game they win more than 93 percent of the time.

Game-winning goals. Driving the offense. Point totals that are nearly unmatched for this era. Dominating games. He is the definition of impactful.

[Related: Evgeny Kuznetsov’s impact on Capitals, Stanley Cup Final grows]

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. When I sat down to start writing this update I was prepared to keep Ovechkin in the top spot because, well, he has been absolutely phenomenal this postseason. But when I dug into the Kuznetsov performance a little more it was enough to change my mind. That does not take away from what Ovechkin is doing because right now, if the Capitals end up winning the Stanley Cup, it is probably a two-player race at the top. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are the two players.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. It is still somewhat baffling to look back at the start of these playoffs and remember that Braden Holtby, owner of the second highest postseason save percentage in NHL history, started the postseason on the bench. He has a .923 save percentage entering Game 5, recorded back-to-back shutouts to get his team to the Stanley Cup Final when they were facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Final and has a .920 save percentage through the first four games of this series, including .945 in the Capitals’ three wins to this point. He also made that pretty big save in Game 2.

4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. At the start of the series I argued that barring a collapse in the series Fleury might have a strong case to win the award whether the Golden Knights win it all or not. In four games he has yet to record a save percentage higher than .885 in any single game. 

5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. His point production has dried up in the Stanley Cup Final but he has been the one Vegas forward that has looked consistently dangerous in the series, already recording 20 shots on goal plus one shot off the post early in Game 4. Still, he is a big reason the Golden Knights are here and has been the the player driving their great first line.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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.