VEGAS POLISHING OFF ITS LATEST GEM
Karlsson proving to be another expansion draft steal for Golden Knights GM McPhee
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.
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.