The NHL’s Golden Knights have shattered just about every record for an expansion team in 2017-2018. The Golden Knights have the NHL expansion team record for the most wins, the most points and the most road victories. They won the Pacific Division, and will be the favorites when they host a first round playoff series. They are the first expansion team, in any sport, in the last 27 years to make the playoffs. At the time of this writing, they have the fifth best record in the entire NHL. The Vegas Golden Knights haven’t simply rewritten the record book, they have, perhaps fittingly, defied all of the odds.
An unassuming 25 year old center, William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, has been one very big reason contributing to the Vegas Knights’ success. Drafted in the second round, 53rd overall, of the 2011 NHL draft by Anaheim, he made his NHL debut for the Ducks in 2014-2015 season. After just 18 games and three points he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In three games with the Jackets, he had 2 points. The next two seasons in Columbus, Karlsson played in 162 games and scored 15 goals on 204 shots. A conversion rate of 7 percent. He averaged 13:54 of ice time per game. The Jackets left him exposed in the NHL’s expansion draft, and the Vegas Knights drafted the Center. In his first season in Vegas, Karlsson has posted career highs in minutes, shots on goal, and goals. In fact, this year is so out of the norm for Karlsson, that it must be considered anomalous.
By way of example, Karlsson has 43 goals at the time of this writing. His prior career high is 9 goals. He has taken 182 shots on goal, his prior career high was 108 shots on goal. Karlsson is logging about 33% more ice time for the Knights than his average in Columbus, but he is also being far more aggressive. He is taking a shot on goal for every 8 minutes of ice time this year, and his prior rate was once every 11 minutes. There is another factor that sheds light on the dramatic increase in Karlsson’s play. Not all ice time is created equal in the NHL. In Columbus he was a bottom 6 forward and a penalty killer. In Vegas he is the first line center.
However, the increase in minutes, opportunity and aggressiveness cannot account for the stratospheric numbers Karlsson has produced. Everything you need to know about Karlsson’s season can be found in his 2017 -2018 conversion rate. Karlsson is converting his shots on goal at a whopping 23.6% mark. His prior career conversion rate was 8.3%. His current mark of 23.6% conversion is not just the highest in the league by any player with at least 20 goals, it isn’t even close. The next highest conversion percentage of a player with at least 20 goals is 19.7%, and the average is in the 16% range.
To put this in no uncertain terms, the probability that Karlsson would have had a 43 goal campaign in 2017-2018 for the Golden Knights was 0.000001 percent. Maris had a better probability of breaking Ruth’s home run record, than Karlsson had of a 43 goal campaign. Of course, the better question would be what is the probability of a random NHL player of similar ilk to Karlsson having a 43 goal campaign at some point. Then the odds rise dramatically, but they are still an infinitesimally small .009 percent.
Given what we know about Karlsson’s play, the law of large numbers and regression to the mean, the question remains what kind of season can the Golden Knights expect from him next year. We can expect that Karlsson’s ice time may increase by as much as 10% next season. The real question is will he take more shots. Of the top 20 goal scorers in the league, Karlsson is last in shots attempted and, again, it isn’t even close. The NHL’s current goal leader, Ovechkin has 46 goals on 343 shots on goal. Karlsson has 43 goals on only 182 shots on goal. Under Gerard Gallant’s coaching no player will reach the shots on goal level of an Ovechkin, but Karlsson will need to dramatically increase his shots on goal next year to between 250 – 300 if he wants to put up numbers in the same ballpark as he did this past season.
The chart below indicates the most likely goal totals for William Karlsson in the 2018-2019 campaign. Please note the percentage indicated for each number of goals represents the likelihood that Karlsson will score that number of goals or more.
Looking at the numbers, the Golden Knights should expect a sharp decline in goals by Karlsson next year, but the drop off will not be anywhere near as bad as one might expect given his prior season high of 9 goals. In fact, it is fair to say that Karlsson has a very high floor. The single most likely number of goals for Karlsson next year is 28 goals. There is a 74% chance that he scores at least 24 goals, and a 50% chance that Karlsson scores 27 or more goals. With respect to his ceiling, there is only a 9% chance that he will score 35 goals or more next season. As for player comparison in terms of expected production, think a younger Jonathan Toews.
In short, the Vegas Golden Knights have an explosive, young front line Center for the foreseeable future in “Wild Bill.”