**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2019-20 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**
Seeing Peter DeBoer behind the Golden Knights’ bench Thursday in Ottawa wasn’t the only shock to the system. Not seeing William Karlsson on the ice may have been a bigger shock.
After all, Karlsson had never missed a game in his NHL career. He was the one reliable factor the Knights had, whether it was Gerard Gallant or DeBoer coaching him. We’ve been so accustomed to seeing No. 71 on the top line for the most part that we probably have never given it a second thought.
But Karlsson’s out with an upper-body injury. He’s listed as week-to-week, which in Knight-speak means we might not see Wild Bill for quite a while. And that’s not a good thing in terms of the team’s short-term success.
We all know Karlsson’s been struggling offensively. You need only look at his game log to know he has had a tough season when it comes to putting the puck in the net. He has just 10 goals and last lit the lamp back on Dec. 13 against Dallas. Yet despite his lack of alacrity for scoring goals, his 34 points ranks him fourth overall, behind Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Reilly Smith. He has managed to still contribute offensively despite his goal-scoring struggles.
Chandler Stephenson is doing a serviceable job as Karlsson’s replacement. He’s been a great acquisition for the Knights as he has shown tremendous versatility and an ability to fit in wherever whichever coach, first Gallant, now DeBoer plays him. But Karlsson is an important part of this system and to be without him for any significant length of time is not to Vegas’ advantage.
Let’s start with the fact he is responsible in the defensive end of the ice. He is +4 overall and averages just over 19 minutes of ice time per appearance. He wins battles at both ends of the rink and he’ll block a shot or use his stick to break up a pass.
He has developed into a very good penalty killer. And while the Knights’ overall PK hasn’t been great (they’re tied for 21st in the NHL at 78.9 percent), Karlsson has teamed with Smith to do a nice job.
He’s also been good in the face-off circle this year. In the 49 games he has played to date, Karlsson is winning 51.2 percent of his draws. He has never been above 50 percent in his career. In his first year with the Knights, he was 48 percent. Last year, it dropped to 47 percent. So that’s a marked improvement.
He’s also been more engaged physically, which may or may not be a good thing. He has 14 minutes in penalties, which is putting him on pace for a career high in that category. So he probably won’t win the Lady Byng. But I like seeing him battle in the corners, get to the front of the net and compete in that area.
Then there’s the continuity factor. When a top-six forward such as Karlsson exits the lineup, it means the coach is forced to juggle things to compensate. It has helped Paul Stastny, who has ben reunited with Pacioretty and Stone on the second line. And as I said earlier, Stephenson is doing a serviceable job centering for Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, who just recently returned from his own injury after missing five games.
Where Karlsson’s absence hurts the Knights is with the bottom six. Stastny’s moving up to the second line creates a void of a skilled player on the third line. That means either Cody Eakin, Tomas Nosek or Nic Roy are playing third- and fourth-line pivot duties and that impacts the wingers on the third line. I’m thinking specifically Alex Tuch, who is continuing to struggle offensively and would probably be better served playing with Stastny or Stephenson than with Eakin or Nosek or Roy.
And let’s not forget the Knights are also without the services of Cody Glass and have been so since he went out Jan. 4 against St. Louis with a knee injury. So that’s not an option for DeBoer at the moment.
You can bemoan the fact that Karlsson’s not scoring goals. You can point to his contract extension and say he is a bit of a comfortable fat cat now that he got paid, an argument I don’t buy. But he is a key contributor to this team and the Knights are better with him than without him.
There’s one game left before the All-Star break and the team’s bye week. Maybe we’ll see him back in the lineup at the end of the month in Raleigh against the Hurricanes, or during that four-game road trip in early February. In that regard, the schedule-makers at the NHL did Vegas a favor as it has lessened the impact of one if the team’s missing one of its key components.
Either way, the Knights need No. 71 back on the ice. And the sooner Karlsson returns to the lineup, the better.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**