I have a decision to make.
It’s a small one in the grand scheme of things, but I can’t stop thinking about it.
Here’s my dilemma: What should I do with William Karlsson?
Yes, I’m talking about the Vegas Golden Knights center, and yes, I’m referring to my fantasy keeper hockey team. But I’m also talking about perhaps the most obvious candidate for regression in the history of the National Hockey League.
I scooped “Wild Bill” as one of my two free agent pickups last season, and the guy almost won me my league, which would have amounted to my first championship. The 25-year-old broke out to the tune of 43 goals and 35 assists in 82 games, marking an otherworldly bump from his previous levels of production at the NHL level.
Consider the following: In 184 career games prior to last season, Karlsson had recorded 18 goals and 32 assists, good for a point per game average of 0.27. In 2017-18, he catapulted to 0.95 points per game, tied with star centers Aleksander Barkov and Tyler Seguin in total points.
But the caveat to end all caveats is his 43 goals came on 184 shots, good for a 23.4 percent success rate. That was matched by Colorado rookie forward Alexander Kerfoot, who scored 19 goals on 81 shots for an identical shooting percentage. To call that unsustainable is a massive understatement considering the league average generally falls between 10 and 11 percent, per Dimitri Filipovic of Sportsnet.
Now I’ve openly admitted in the past that advanced stats aren’t my forte, but I know some basics that could help to put this in context. For starters, Karlsson boasted a 53.31 Corsi For percentage during 5 on 5 play last season, meaning he was on the ice for more shot attempts for than against over the course of the season. Encouraging.
And although he only recorded 184 shots, he did attempt 321, meaning he was indeed firing the puck towards the net with some regularity. A few more of those hit or aren’t blocked, and his outburst doesn’t seem so outrageous. Additionally, his 222 attempts in 5 on 5 play were on par with other start centers such as a Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux. All this from the great Corsica Hockey, by the way.
It’s also encouraging to note his playoff performance, which might give a better indication of where he’ll rank in the future. Predictably, his production leveled off a bit at seven goals and eight assists in 20 games, and he recorded 50 shots on goal, meaning his shooting percentage dropped back to a more normal 14 percent. None of this is really a bad thing, though.
As Scott Maran over at Dobber noted halfway through Vegas’ run to the Cup Final, “What’s really great though is that in just a few playoff games, Karlsson is probably showing his baseline for next season. And it’s still fantastic. There’s no chance he shoots over 20% again, but right now he’s at four goals in nine games with a 13.3% shooting percentage. That comes out to a 36-goal pace over a full regular season, which is much more realistic for Karlsson next season. His increased shot rate also bodes well as it would have been near impossible for Karlsson to keep scoring at such a prolific pace without upping his shots on net.”
Look, regression is inevitable with this guy. He’s not going to score 43 goals on 184 shots, as that kind of success is almost as rare as an expansion team killing it in the inaugural season. But there’s signs that he won’t fall off the face of the earth and post nothing numbers like he did in Columbus and briefly in Anaheim.
Karlsson has been given a real shot as a number one center by Gerard Gallant in Vegas, and – to his credit – he made good on it during his first go round.
And it wasn’t as if he was a one-dimensional player, either. He did impress enough at both ends of the ice to finish sixth in Selke Trophy voting , although a Vegas writer voted for him over Patrice Bergeron, so take that with a grain of salt.
On his list of 300 keeper skaters, Dobber has Karlsson listed at 38. On my squad, that’s behind only Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Brad Marchand, Taylor Hall, Patrick Kane and David Pastrnak. When you have 15 keepers, I can’t justify keeping the likes of Cam Atkinson or Jeff Skinner over him, and have to assess the merits of Mark Stone and Matt Duchene playing on a garbage Ottawa team.
I know nobody cares about my fantasy team, that’s for sure. But in the bigger picture, Karlsson seems like someone to at least hang a hat on, just maybe not your favorite one. Maybe the beat-up snapback you use to play softball in and not the authentic, fitted Blue Jays lid with the white front.
Interestingly, he remains a restricted free agent, so the kind of money and term afforded to him by the Golden Knights will speak volumes about how much they have in his ability to come close to replicating his success with the club to date.
In short, “Wild Bill” is sure to be tamed a bit, I think, but he’ll be better than ok. I hoping so, at least.
Thank you for reading my rushed attempt to keep my hockey writing rust at bay.