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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

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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.

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.

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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.

After improbable debut, where do Golden Knights go in year two?

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The Vegas Golden Knights inaugural season was a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness and downright chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

At the start of the year expectations were about as low as they could have possibly been for an NHL team, and for good reason. It was a roster that was mostly a collection of second-and third-tier players from all over the league where the initial intention was, presumably, to hope enough of them would perform at a high enough level that they could be flipped at the trade deadline for more future assets to continue building an expansion team from the ground up.

It was going to be a brutally tough job for general manager George McPhee.

Then a bunch of wild stuff happened and expectations suddenly changed to something else entirely — win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Not in two years. Not in five years. Not within the decade. Right. Now.

[Related: Welcome to playoff heartbreak, Vegas]

We realized a lot of those second-and third-tier players were maybe better than anyone thought, including the general managers that willingly gave a lot of them away when they didn’t actually need to. The goalie played the best hockey of his life and masked a lot of flaws on defense for most of the playoffs. A forward that had scored 18 goals in 173 career games on an 8 percent shooting percentage coming into the season suddenly could not miss and finished as the league’s third-leading goal-scorer. All of it together pushed them to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell just three wins shy of doing the impossible.

Now that this improbable, magical season has come to an end, McPhee and the Vegas front office have another tough job ahead of them as they try to build on this season.

There are a lot of big questions here that should lead to an absolutely fascinating offseason.

One of the biggest questions facing them is what they do with leading goal-scorer William Karlsson.

Karlsson is a restricted free agent this summer and after scoring 43 goals and being one of the driving forces of the team’s offense is going to be in line for a substantial raise over the $1 million he made during the 2017-18 season. How Vegas handles this is going to be tricky because at no point in his career did he ever play at a level like this. You can’t really pay him like a 40-goal scorer because you don’t know if he is going to ever be this play again, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest he wont. The best hope is that he is willing to sign a “prove it” bridge deal and show what type of player he really is before going all in on him.

Along with Karlsson’s contract situation the Golden Knights have four pretty significant unrestricted free agents in James Neal, David Perron, Ryan Reaves and Luca Sbisa.

Who do they try to keep (Neal?) and who do they say goodbye (Reaves, Perron?) to in free agency?

But perhaps the most enticing question is what they do outside of their own players, because McPhee is going to have seemingly unlimited options.

The Golden Knights will enter the offseason with more salary cap space than nearly every other team in the NHL. They have 27 draft picks over the next three years to deal from. They has a prospect pipeline that includes three top-15 picks from a year ago. They have what might be the greatest free agency sales pitch ever (We just went to the Stanley Cup Final, we have a ton of money to pay you, oh and we play in Las freakin’ Vegas). All of that makes pretty much any player in the NHL that could conceivably be available in play.

They could, if they wanted to, make a serious run at John Tavares and give the team another superstar to build around alongside Marc-Andre Fleury.

They could, if they wanted to, make another run at trading for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson and theoretically pay him whatever market value contract he wants beyond next season. Heck, they could probably go after both him and Tavares given the cap space and assets they have at their disposal.

There is, however, a danger in that sort of approach for this team.

The danger: What if the rest of this team, as currently constructed, simply is not as good as it looked this season? It would not be the first time a team went on a lengthy, unexpected playoff run and then came back the next season and cratered across the board.

What if William Karlsson gets re-signed and regresses back to the 8 percent shooter he was in Columbus and Anaheim only scores 15 goals next season? What if Marc-Andre Fleury goes back to the .915 save percentage he has had for most of his career? What if Reilly Smith goes from being the near point-per-game player he was this season to the 45-50 point player he has been throughout his career? What if Neal and/or Perron leave in free agency and Tomas Tatar can not match what they provided over a full season?

Those are a lot of big, important questions and they are ultimately the ones that will dictate where this team goes in the immediate future, perhaps even more than whatever free agent they can acquire or what trade they can make.

At the start of the year we expected this Vegas team to stink. In hindsight, we had no idea how good they were as they stormed through the Western Conference on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Funny thing is even after doing that we still probably do not really know how good they are or where they are headed in year two.

That, too, is a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness, and chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

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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.

Controversial Perron goal counts; Capitals brawl after Vegas gains lead

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the adrenaline is pumping big time and luck seems to be shifting dramatically moment to moment as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final shifted back to Vegas for Game 5.

There’s plenty of time for the script to flip, but the bounces were really going the Golden Knights’ way during the second period. (All five of the goals happened during a busy middle frame.)

The Golden Knights enter the third period of Game 5 with a 3-2 lead thanks to a power-play goal, but there’s room to debate if the 2-2 goal should have counted.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH GAME 5 LIVE]

The tally survived a review, even though the Washington Capitals unsuccessfully challenged David Perron‘s tying goal for goalie interference. Ultimately, the call on the ice stood, so apparently Christian Djoos contact was enough to get Perron off the hook for impeding Braden Holtby.

Here’s the official verdict from the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Referee, the Situation Room confirmed that the actions of Washington’s Christian Djoos caused Perron to contact Holtby before the puck crossed the goal line. The decision was made in accordance with Note 2 of Rule 78.7 (ii) which states, in part, that the goal should be allowed because “the attacking Player was pushed, shoved or fouled by a defending Player causing the attacking Player to come into contact with the goalkeeper.”

Therefore, the original call stands – good goal Vegas Golden Knights.

Since the Coach’s Challenge did not result in the original call being overturned, the Washington Capitals forfeit their time-out.

Watch the replays in the video above this post’s headline and decide for yourself: should the 2-2 goal count or was the wrong call made?

So far, Washington has managed 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but Vegas has been able to respond. The Golden Knights have had their best success creating havoc in front of Holtby and getting some positive bounces. They’ve also avoided some near-goals by Washington before finally getting a lead thanks to a 3-2 goal by Reilly Smith thanks to a brilliant Alex Tuch feed.

After that 3-2 goal was scored, a wild scuffle ensued. With all the frenetic energy being created in front of Washington’s net lately, it’s not shocking that tensions boiled over:

Expect more fireworks during the third period. Will the Capitals rally to win their first Stanley Cup, or will the Golden Knights force a Game 6 in Washington?

Three-goal first period helps put Capitals one win away from Lord Stanley

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There are moments that define every Stanley Cup Final for the team that gets to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug.

In Game 2, it was Braden Holtby’s paddle save. In Game 3, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov’s one-goal, one-assist performance after being a question mark heading into the game with an undisclosed injury.

But Game 4’s defining moment had nothing to do with the Washington Capitals at all, at least not initially.

With the Washington Capitals taking a 3-1 series lead in the best-of-7 back to Vegas after a 6-2 win on Monday, it was James Neal‘s first-period gaffe on a wide-open net that might haunt the expansion Golden Knights for a while to come.

The miss rattled the Capitals to attention and the ensuing a three-goal outburst by Washington only illuminated further the magnitude of Neal’s near-miss.

T.J. Oshie got things started on the power play, Tom Wilson made it worse and Devante Smith-Pelly twisted the dagger on a bad turnover as the Capitals took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission.

Vegas never recovered.

They struck iron three times in the first period and heard that familiar ‘ping’ sound twice more in the second frame.

John Carlson hit a post, too, only his shot caromed off the inside of it and hit mesh not long after to make it 4-0 as Washington’s lethal power play kept its reign of destruction (they’re 4-for-12 in the series now after going 3-for-5 in Game 4). Washington has 20 goals on the power play in the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the cross-ice pass to Carlson, giving him a hat-trick of assists in the game and his 30th point of the playoffs. Kuznetsov added another late in the game for a four-point night.

Did someone say Conn Smythe?

That trophy could be in the hands of Kuznetsov as early as Thursday night (although let’s not kid ourselves — it’s probably going to be given to Alex Ovechkin) in Vegas as the series shifts back to Nevada for Game 5.

Vegas managed to find two goals (Neal with a hint of redemption and Reilly Smith found twine, too) in the third period, but it was all just a little too late.

If there was hope of a comeback, it was ripped apart by Michal Kempny‘s one-timer with just over six minutes left to make it 5-2 and then cemented by Brett Connolly‘s 6-2 marker as Washington enjoyed a two-man advantage.

For Vegas, it’s win or bust now. Everything that got them this far seems to have fled the vicinity.

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to struggle, putting up his fourth consecutive sub-.800 save percentage performance. Vegas’ treasure trove of goals has imploded and their speed has run out of gas.

Vegas scored six goals in Game 1 but has just five in the three games that followed.

And they now own the most daunting of tasks: win three in a row.

The math isn’t good.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Washington leads series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)

* = If necessary

MORE:

• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide


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