Golden Knights’ top line could torment opponents for years

James O'Brien
NBC Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault weren’t just a great combination “for an expansion team” in Game 2 of the 2018 Western Conference Final. No, they were too much for the loaded, ultra-talented Winnipeg Jets to handle, joining Marc-Andre Fleury as the main reason this series is tied.

Teams around the NHL have to hope that this combination is a mere flash-in-the-pan, because if not, they could be a fixture for quite some time.

And, the scary part is that two-thirds of that line is on the sort of team-friendly deals that can allow GM George McPhee to build a consistent contender, with no need to even consider expansion team caveats.

Let’s consider each player for a moment.

The next Martin St. Louis?

OK, Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t play exactly like the former Lightning star. For one thing, he shoots right-handed.

Still, there are broader, big-picture similarities. Both players went undrafted despite being productive players at other levels. They each took quite a bit of time to truly get a chance. St. Louis ended up breaking through in Tampa Bay, while Marchessault showed early signs of brilliance with the Bolts before lighting it up with Florida and then (well, if you spend a moment on Hockey Twitter, there’s a chance you’ll hear a joke about the Panthers trading Marchessault and Smith). Of course, each scorer had to fight so hard to grab attention because of the NHL’s dismissive attitude toward smaller players.

Like St. Louis, there’s the feeling that Marchessault might take some time to truly clue people in that he’s not just good, he could be great.

Consider his Game 2 performance: two goals, eight shots on goal, and generally one of those drag-your-team-on-your-back outputs. That second goal really crushed the Jets’ spirit after it looked like they might get back into the game. Accomplishing things like this with considerable frequency sure makes you look like a star:

Remarkably, Marchessault’s body of work at the NHL level is still slender for a 27-year-old, so maybe he’s playing a little bit over his head. Still, when you look at his work in the QJMHL and AHL, it’s clear that he produces wherever you put him.

Marchessault’s career-insecurity probably helps to explain why he signed what currently looks like an extremely team-friendly contract extension back in January. He’ll carry just a $5 million cap hit from 2018-19 to 2023-24, covering what would likely be the remainder of his prime.

That contract feels a lot like Viktor Arvidsson‘s with Nashville: a smaller, productive first-line forward who needed to gain notice by sheer force of will, signing a contract that’s all about long-term security, even if it means giving his team a possible bargain.

Then again, there’s a more local comparison to Marchessault’s contract …

No fooling

Maybe it makes sense that Reilly Smith was born on April 1, as teams have been fooled into giving up on him to a puzzling extent.

Smith, also 27, began his career as a third-round draft pick with Dallas. He didn’t really gain traction in the NHL until he joined the Boston Bruins as sneakily the B’s best takeaway from the ill-fated Tyler Seguin deal. Despite generating a 20-goal, 51-point season at 22 and a solid 40-point output in 2014-15, Smith was traded to Florida almost exactly two years later.

The pattern continued. Smith had a great first season with the Cats (25 goals, 50 points in 2015-16), dipped a bit a season later, and then was dumped to Vegas. Spoiler: that worked out really well for the Vegas Knights.

Smith’s strong debut season with Vegas probably flew a bit under the radar because of injuries. Despite being limited to 67 games, he was a regular scoring presence, collecting 22 goals and 60 points. For whatever reason, his shooting luck has dried up in the postseason, but he’s still racking up assists (as PHT’s Joey Alfieri spotlights here).

One of Smith’s standout assists came in Game 3 of Vegas’ eventual sweep of the Kings. Watch as the Golden Knights’ top line created havoc against Drew Doughty & Co., setting the stage for Karlsson’s first goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The delightful thing about Smith and Marchessault is that there’s ample evidence that, while their offense may ebb and flow, their possession games have been strong for much of their careers. At worst, they seem like they’ll be valuable players for Vegas for years.

Smith’s contract brings added value, too. He was traded to Vegas with a $5M cap hit that runs through 2021-22. One could easily speculate that McPhee was able to use his deal as a measuring stick for Marchessault’s asking price, which brings us to the wild-haired wild card of the trio:

Playing the percentages

There’s something fittingly “Vegas Golden Knights” about Karlsson’s place in this group.

While Marchessault and Smith very much fit into the misfits group in Vegas as players who were discarded by multiple teams, it feels safe to at least pencil them in as useful, if not dominant, top-six forwards. Karlsson’s much tougher to figure … yet he also topped the team with 43 goals and 78 points.

It’s almost unavoidable to hear doubters chuckle when discussing Karlsson’s incredible campaign. When it comes to the regular season, that’s fair. No one – not Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux – can sustain a 23.4 shooting percentage over the long haul.

The heartening thing for Karlsson and Vegas is that he’s been productive and dangerous during the playoffs, even as his luck is settling down. The 25-year-old has generated a point-per-game (12 in 12) despite a more earthly 13.5 shooting percentage.

He’s a slick, smart player who can really skate. There’s a lot to like, whether he’s a true first-liner or merely a very nice forward. If he can stick with Marchessault and Smith, Karlsson could remain a threat.

And that’s where it all gets interesting.

Karlsson needs a new contract, as he’s a pending RFA.

Will that 78-point season land him the sort of contract that Vegas might regret? Could both sides acknowledge that explosive season but also an otherwise skimpy track record of NHL success with Columbus and opt for a “prove it” contract? If Vegas offered a clone of the Marchessault deal, would that make the most sense?

***

There are a lot of questions there, but the good news is that Vegas is in a great position. If they make the right call(s) with Karlsson, they’ll have a prime-age trio of forwards who are currently sticking with – and sometimes skating right by – some of the best players in the NHL.

It should all be fascinating and fun to watch … but not quite as fun as watching Smith, Marchessault, and Karlsson exasperate defenders and fill highlight reels.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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