Usually when the two sides submit their proposed salaries for arbitration, one or both of those numbers is deeply out of whack with reality.
Cody Ceci and Mark Stone (at $6 million and $9 million, respectively) are two recent examples of players going absurdly high just to get their award up and you can’t blame ’em, really. Jacob Trouba is a perfect example of a team low-balling a guy (at $4 million) just because they knew it would depress his short-term value.
But in the case of the Vegas Golden Knights and presumptive No. 1 center William Karlsson, both sides came in at numbers that make perfect sense. The team’s proposed salary is $3.5 million, while Karlsson is seeking $6.5 million.
Karlsson, of course, has the benefit of arguing that he just scored 43 goals and 78 points for a team that had an incredible season and run to the Cup Final, to go along with extremely good underlying numbers, and forged phenomenal chemistry with top-line wingers Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith. And frankly, $6.5 million for a player like that might even be a bit of a bargain if we’re being totally honest.
On the other hand, Vegas can say $3.5 million is a good bet on a one-year deal because Karlsson’s career high in goals before this season was nine, his career high in points was 25, and those two things happened in separate 81-game seasons. Which is to say that, if you look at both his expanded role and shooting percentage, you can argue that this is a player who is probably quite good but also significantly over-performed any rational expectation for long-term production in a season filled with career years for the Golden Misfits.
And because we know that the NHL’s arbitrators almost always split the difference between the player and team offerings, should both sides not be happy with a $5 million one-year deal?
One supposes Karlsson would prefer to lock in a long-term deal coming off this season, especially due to all the emotions wrapped up in it. After all, if Marc-Andre Fleury can get that absurd contract because of one outsized season, shouldn’t Karlsson get the same? Plus, if he feels like he’s worth just $6.5 million coming off a much better season than Stone, shouldn’t a long-term deal with an AAV of between $5 million and $5.5 million — when both his linemates have AAVs of $5 million for the next four seasons — make sense for him?
He is, of course, betting on himself to some extent, and if he were to produce another 40-goal season in which he scored roughly a point a game, then that $6.5 million would be a bargain and, more importantly, a bargaining chip of significant size. It’s rare for guys to score that much two years in a row, and teams almost always pay through the nose for players of such quality (with Brad Marchand being a bit of an exception). If that happened, $6.5 million AAVs would instantly become the absolute basement floor of what Karlsson would command, and with good reason.
Meanwhile, Vegas is wisely betting that 43 goals on 184 shots isn’t going to happen again. Coming into this past season, Karlsson had only scored 18 goals on 233 shots over two-and-a-quarter seasons, so while his shot production has increased significantly with his expanded role and improved linemates (from 1.27 per game to 2.24, so almost a full shot with about five extra minutes per night), he’s not exactly shooting it like Ovechkin out there.
Karlsson was 206th among all skaters with at least 500 minutes in shots on goal per 60 minutes last season, but was eighth in goals per hour. Over a long enough timeline, you’d expect the latter ranking to push closer to the former, all things being equal.
Even if you think he’s more of a guy who can generate his own breakaways, which carry with them a higher shooting percentage anyway, or forgive him for not being the traditional “trigger man” on his line, because Marchessault took 84 more shots in five fewer games, you can’t count on this guy shooting 23-plus percent forever, right? Not that Vegas would ever want him or expect him to go back to his single-digit goalscoring, but the bet that he’ll take a big step back in terms of individual goal production is a smart one. Seen through that lens, him even hitting 30 goals should be seen as a windfall; guys who shoot that little tend not to score that often.
But again, if Karlsson “reverts” to being even a 20- or 25-goal guy who keeps the puck in the attacking end to the extent he did last year, then this is a guy who’s worth significantly more than Vegas’s ask here, and for whom a $5 million AAV — either for one year or several to come — makes perfect sense.
There is basically no outcome here, absent the arbitrator inexplicably awarding the player exactly what Vegas asked for, that doesn’t work. That’s especially true because of the Golden Knights’ current and long-term cap situations, since they’re swimming in cap space and probably won’t have too many expensive players to re-sign in the near future. Apart from Nate Schmidt, Alex Tuch, and (to a significantly lesser extent) Tomas Nosek, there aren’t even a lot of guys the team should be looking to keep around long-term whose contracts are up next summer.
You can quibble with a few of the contracts this team has given out this summer but if you’re going to build around a top line with this apparent quality (even taking their luck last season out of the equation) you’re going to be in pretty good shape going forward. Both sides might be a little bit gun-shy about entering arbitration at all, and they have until Saturday morning to hammer out a deal, but there’s little doubt that both player and team like their current relationship. Everyone involved, you’d think, understands the pro and con arguments on both sides.
So whether it’s one year or five, Karlsson’s next contract is going to make sense unless they go completely off-script to avoid arbitration altogether. Which, I guess, they might.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.