Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
As July starts to wind down and we try to survive the doldrums of summer, that means each sleep puts us one day closer to the NHL season. In fact, there are 71 days, or William Karlsson days, until opening night.
Karlsson has been one of the main pieces for the Vegas Golden Knights ever since their inception and he is going to be a big part of their future as he signed an eight-year extension on June 24. Here is a look at how he got here.
Breaking into the Professional Ranks
Karlsson was drafted in 2011 by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round, 53rd overall. Anaheim likes to let their prospects develop and they sent Karlsson back to Sweden to learn the game on his home soil. That season, in Sweden’s top junior league, he put up 45 points in 46 games and earned the call up to the Swedish Elite League.
For the next two seasons, he played 105 games for HV71 Jonkoping and registered 65 points in his final teenage years while playing against men. After his team was eliminated from the playoffs during the 2013-14 season, he came to North America and suited up for nine games with the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL. He scored two goals and seven assists while showing his high hockey IQ, playing in all situations.
He would start the 2014-15 season with the Ducks and played in 18 games for them, scoring his first NHL goal in his second career game. Karlsson had lots of time to pick his spot and released a tremendous snapshot, one of the reasons why he would become a 40-goal scorer for Vegas.
He was competing with fellow Swede Rickard Rakell for a full-time spot on the team and ultimately Bob Murray and his staff chose Rakell as the team dealt “Wild Bill” to the Columbus Blue Jackets for James Wisniewski at the 2015 trade deadline.
Developing as an NHLer
The 2015-16 season was Karlsson’s first full campaign at the NHL level. Todd Richards would start off as his head coach but was fired after an 0-7 start. The club brought in a very headstrong bench boss to replace him, John Tortorella.
Tortorella implements a very structured system and Karlsson was used primarily as a third-line checking center because of his defensive prowess, thus limiting his offensive stats to 15 goals and 45 points in his two seasons as a member of the Blue Jackets.
The limited production left management to believe Karlsson would only amount to a bottom-six center in the NHL and thus left him available for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Columbus would trade the contract of David Clarkson, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder in exchange for Vegas selecting him. Trades like this helped Vegas become contenders quick as they accumulated multiple assets and turned them into stars.
Turning into a Star
Much like everyone selected in the expansion draft, each player had a point to prove when arriving in Vegas. Teams gave extra assets to the Golden Knights to take a certain player and that lit a fire under some; Karlsson was one of them.
He was one of the players who made their former team squeamish every time they looked at the Golden Knights box score. He finished his first season in Vegas with 43 goals and 78 points (both led the team) and tacked on another 15 points during their magical playoff run.
Karlsson took home some hardware at the NHL Awards show at the end of the season, winning the Lady Byng Trophy. His 43 goals and plus-49 rating compared to 12 penalty minutes made him the front runner for this award as he was always a threat offensively while being a smart player away from the puck.
Another reason for the dramatic improvement was because of the vast difference in coaching styles. While Tortorella is a demanding coach, Gerard Gallant is a players coach. He has his systems and gives out certain responsibilities, but he knows that it is the players on the ice that make the plays. He lets his guys try new things and does not punish them if a mistake is made.
After his first successful season, management wanted to see him do it again before rewarding him with a big contract. He signed a one-year deal worth almost $6 million. In his second season, he was not able to repeat the 40 goals, but he still put up respectable numbers; he finished with 24 goals and 56 points.
Those numbers earned Karlsson some big cash as recently re-signed with the club for another eight years. Many thought they were not going to be able to keep him because of their cap woes, but general manager Kelly McCrimmon knows how important he is to the franchise and both sides were able to agree on a team-friendly deal.
The organization now has its core players locked up for at least three or more seasons, hoping this group can go back to the Stanley Cup Final and win the holy grail.
On a personal level, Karlsson will look to add to his stats as he is the only player to play in every single Golden Knights game (regular and postseason) and is the all-time leader in goals (67) and points (134).
Countdown to Hockey
Only 71 more sleeps until NHL hockey is officially back. The Golden Knights still need to make a couple of moves to acquire a defenseman and create some cap space, but McCrimmon and company have two months to fill out the rest of their roster.