VE­GAS POLISHING OFF ITS LAT­EST GEM

Karls­son prov­ing to be another expansion draft steal for Golden Knights GM McPhee

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS mtraikos@postmedia.com twit­ter.com/Michael_Traikos

Alexan­der Wennberg or Wil­liam Karls­son?

If the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets could do it all over again, which player do you think they would pro­tect?

No ques­tion, a favourable expansion draft has helped the Ve­gas Golden Knights get off to a bet­ter start than any­one could have dreamed in their in­au­gu­ral sea­son in the NHL. But it didn’t have to be this way.

While Golden Knights GM Ge­orge McPhee did a fan­tas­tic job of pick­ing the right play­ers, the 30 other gen­eral man­agers in the league sure gave him a lot of op­tions. Teams were al­lowed to pro­tect seven for­wards, three de­fence­men and one goalie or one goalie and eight skaters re­gard­less of po­si­tion.

Some, like the Toronto Maple Leafs (Bren­dan Leip­sic), lost a player they hardly knew they had. Oth­ers, how­ever, weren’t so lucky.

The Blue Jack­ets pro­tected Wennberg, 23, rather than Karls­son, who is one year older. Af­ter 22 games, Wennberg has a goal and 10 points. Karls­son, who has 14 goals and 25 points in 27 games for the Knights, would be far and away Colum­bus’ leader in goals and points.

Then again, it was only af­ter join­ing the expansion team that he was given the chance to show­case his pre­vi­ously dor­mant tal­ents.

“I was an of­fen­sive guy in Swe­den,” Karls­son, who had 25 points in 81 games last sea­son and has al­ready ex­ceeded his pre­vi­ous high of nine goals, told NHL.com this week. “I kind of knew I al­ways had it in me. I knew I had a chance here and I re­ally wanted to take it.”

It’s not just Karls­son who is mak­ing the most of a big­ger op­por­tu­nity in Ve­gas and at the same time caus­ing his for­mer GM a lot of re­gret.

Jonathan Marches­sault, who is play­ing on Karls­son’s line, is tied with a team-lead­ing 25 points in 24 games. His pro­duc­tion is less sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing he scored 30 goals last sea­son for the Florida Pan­thers. But that also made Florida’s de­ci­sion not to pro­tect him — and Reilly Smith, who has seven goals and 21 points af­ter be­ing in­cluded in a trade to Ve­gas — a cu­ri­ous one, es­pe­cially since the Pan­thers were tied for 17th in goals per game as of Wed­nes­day.

The same goes for Bos­ton, which pro­tected de­fence­man Ke­van Miller (no goals and four points in 24 games) rather than Colin Miller (four goals and 14 points in 27 games) and Min­nesota, which pro­tected Nino Nieder­re­iter (nine goals and 12 points in 21 games) rather than Erik Haula (nine goals and 17 points in 23 games).

Call it the year of the backup. Or in the case of the Golden Knights and the Pitts­burgh Penguins, the year of the No. 3 or No. 4.

No team wants to lose their start­ing goalie, as the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens showed when they lost Carey Price for an ex­tended stretch. But oth­ers have been able to sur­vive with­out as much as a hic­cup. Ve­gas, which went 14-8-1 af­ter los­ing Marc-An­dre Fleury in the fourth game of the sea­son, is the best ex­am­ple.

Not far be­hind is Pitts­burgh, where 22-year-old Tristan Jarry has won four of five games and al­lowed just nine goals since be­ing called up from the mi­nors and even­tu­ally fill­ing in for Matt Mur­ray, who had lost the pre­vi­ous three games be­fore suf­fer­ing a lower-body in­jury.

The an­nounce­ment of any all­star or na­tional team is al­ways more about who isn’t on the ros­ter rather than who is. So when Hockey Canada on Wed­nes­day in­vited 32 play­ers to next week’s world ju­nior se­lec­tion camp, most of the fo­cus was on the omis­sions.

The big­gest was per­haps Florida Pan­thers prospect Owen Tip­pett, who had been con­sid­ered a lock to make the team af­ter start­ing the sea­son in the NHL.

“We’re al­ways look­ing for of­fence and ways to pro­duce of­fence. And (Tip­pett) can do that,” Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen told me in No­vem­ber. “We ex­pect him to be part of the of­fence and cer­tainly in the mix.”

In­deed, Tip­pett’s seven games of NHL ex­pe­ri­ence, where he scored a goal, are more than any other in­vite. And only four had more than the 44 goals he scored for Mis­sis­sauga last year.

In other words, like the de­ci­sion to leave Max Domi off the team that fin­ished fourth in 2014 or Jakub Chy­chrun off the team that fin­ished sixth in 2016, it’s some­thing to tuck away in case Canada fin­ishes off the podium.

The IOC’s de­ci­sion to ban Rus­sia from the Olympics ob­vi­ously hurts the coun­try’s hockey team. Not that it mat­ters any­more be­cause the NHL isn’t al­low­ing its play­ers to par­tic­i­pate, but the tim­ing couldn’t be worse con­sid­er­ing this sea­son has been the year when Rus­sians are tak­ing over the league.

Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who was sec­ond in the Rocket Richard Tro­phy race with 19 goals, led all scor­ers with 40 points in 27 games be­fore Thurs­day. Wash­ing­ton’s Alex Ovechkin led all play­ers with 21 goals in 29 games. And Blue Jack­ets goalie Sergei Bo­brovsky, who was last sea­son’s Vez­ina Tro­phy win­ner, has a 2.11 goals-against av­er­age and a .929 save per­cent­age.

Toss in Evgeny Kuznetsov (10 goals and 31 points), Vladimir Tarasenko (12 goals and 29 points) and rookie de­fence­man Mikhail Ser­gachev (six goals and 19 points) and this might have been Rus­sia’s best as­sem­blage of tal­ent.

DAR­RYL DYCK/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

For­ward Wil­liam Karls­son, who wasn’t pro­tected by the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets in the expansion draft, is lead­ing the Ve­gas Golden Knights with 25 points in 27 games so far this sea­son.

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