While most of the hockey world is focused on Erik Karlsson, the Karlsson Vegas already has might be just an interesting a story this offseason. William Karlsson’s monster season has him in line for a massive raise, but as an RFA, and with just one dominant year in the books, the right contract for both sides could look many different ways.
The 25-year-old Swede scored 43 goals, became a top line center on the Western Conference champions, won the Lady Byng Trophy, and finished top 10 in both Selke and Hart voting. He posted career highs in goals, assists, points, time on ice, shots on goal, shot attempts, shooting percentage, face-off percentage, takeaways, Corsi for, and just about every other advanced stat hockey keeps. It was, in every sense of the word, a career year.
But, it was a career year playing on a new team, in a new situation, with new linemates, a new coach, and totally new responsibility. Moving forward, Karlsson will be expected to play the same role with the same responsibility for the Golden Knights. The question is, how should he be paid?
There are really two ways a deal for Karlsson can go, either a short-term “bridge deal” that would make him an unrestricted free agent in two years or a long-term deal that keeps him with the Golden Knights until he’s into his 30’s. So let’s play the pros and cons game for both sides to illustrate how challenging these negotiations are likely going to be.
- Golden Knights
- Pros: The biggest benefit would be to protect the team against the possibility of last year being an outlier. A short-term deal would allow the Golden Knights to see if Karlsson is closer to the 43 goal scorer or the six goal scorer before they commit major money to him long term. If he’s the same guy, you pay your superstar, if he’s not, you saved yourself against a miserable contract that will be tough to get rid of in the future. Another ancillary benefit is the short-term deal would likely be much cheaper as it’s setting Karlsson up to get paid again in a few years. He’d likely be in the $3-5 million range for the next two years giving the Golden Knights even more flexibility to pull off that big trade everybody’s been waiting for.
- Cons: The team would be in danger of having their best player be eligible for unrestricted free agency sooner rather than later. That means either they pay him the massive contract he’s worth (assuming he remains 2017-18 Karlsson) or be exposed to the possibility of losing him to another team for nothing.
- William Karlsson
- Pros: The more times a player comes up for a new contract, the more money he stands to make. Right now there’s some doubt if 17-18 was a fluke or whether it’s the norm. A short-term deal allows Karlsson to bet on himself, prove it, and then be worth double what he’s worth now.
- Cons: Regression is probably more likely than not. This may be the only chance he’ll ever have to make $40+ million and be set for life, taking a short-term deal would be passing that up.
- Golden Knights
- Pros: This might be the cheapest William Karlsson will ever come. If he’s the superstar he appeared to be last season, locking him up at the $5-7 million price tag now will look like the steal of the century five years down the road. If Karlsson remains a Selke/Hart candidate over the next few years he’ll be grossly underpaid, which will allow the Golden Knights plenty of cap space to bring in other players.
- Cons: Paying players based on a few or in Karlsson’s case, one big year often leads to horribly overpaid contracts that become cap stressers.
- William Karlsson
- Pros: Financial stability for life. After one well-timed massive season, Karlsson reasonably stands to sign a contract worth more than $40 million. He’s made less than $5 million in his career, so the idea of cashing in now has to be tempting. It will relieve a lot of the “show me” stress that would come with having to live up to expectations every season until he hits free agency.
- Cons: Cashing in too early. If Karlsson believes he can be a 30+ goal scorer, a Selke candidate, and remain the top center on one of the best teams in the league, as great as the $40 million looks, he could be leaving another $40 on the table. A long-term deal at age 27 coming off three superstar seasons would likely earn him more than $10 million a year for seven or eight seasons. $40 million looks good, but $80+ million looks better.
That was all fairly generic too. In short, this is a complicated situation.
While the Golden Knights hold a ton of power in the fact that Karlsson can only sign a deal with them, Karlsson is not completely void of negotiating power himself. Because arbitration is only allowed to hand out a maximum of a two-year contract, if Karlsson wants the short-term deal, he’s guaranteed to get it.
Like every good Vegas story, it’s going to come down to gambling. Does Karlsson gamble on himself or are the Golden Knights willing to take the long-term gamble? No matter how this shakes out, there’s an inherent risk for each side.
Personally, I’m rooting for a seven-year deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million per year. That’s $42 million for Karlsson, while the Golden Knights would have their entire top line locked up through 2022 for just $16 million. That’s about 20% of the salary cap today, and will only get better as the cap raises in subsequent seasons.
My honest guess though is that Karlsson will opt for the “bridge deal.” A two-year deal that will get him to age 27, and therefore make him an unrestricted free agent. The price tag would probably be around $4-5 million per year. Not the end of the world, but if he ends up continuing to be the player we saw last year, and I think he will, McPhee and Co. will look back at this offseason as the one that got away, because of the Karlsson they already had, not the one they wanted to get.