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Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda — Revisiting the Expansion Draft

Armchair-quarterbacking the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft with 20/20 hindsight.

2021 NHL Expansion Draft Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

So we’re approaching the midway point of the season, and we find ourselves with a week-long break in the action due to COVID-19 problems around the league. 33 games is enough time to see what the Seattle Kraken got in their expansion draft choices, and more importantly, we can now also get a feel for how the players the Kraken decided not to select are faring so far this season.

Thanks to an environment of near-perfect information, this was the most prognosticated and second-guessed draft in history. Seemingly every media outlet, blogger, podcaster, and pundit (present company included) had their opinions about who should and shouldn’t be selected, and afterwards, what mistakes were made. Were the detractors right? Or did general manager Ron Francis do about as well as he could have been expected to do?

Totally Unfair

Now, for the disclaimer. This entire exercise is light years from being fair, since nobody had a crystal ball back in June when these selections were being made. If they did, the Kraken would likely be in first place in the league right now, instead of residing in the basement of the Pacific Division. Francis and his team of pro scouts did thousands of hours of due diligence on over 1000 players, conducted mock drafts by the dozens, and made decisions based on what they thought they knew.

We’re looking at it from across the threshold, and the availability of information concerning the players that the team did select, and those they didn’t, make it all too clear where the brilliant moves and mistakes were in the Kraken’s expansion draft execution. You don’t know an apple is rotten until you take a bite. Well, we’ve eaten about a third of every apple in the orchard, and we know which ones are delicious and which ones are disgusting.

But don’t get me wrong: even though it’s completely unfair we’re still doing this, and I’m not particularly inclined to be nice about it either. Let’s dive in...

Different Approach

First we’re going to address what I assert was a strategic error on the part of Ron Francis. This doesn’t have to do with any one player or team, but instead with his approach to making side deals in the months leading up to the draft.

As a point of reference we’ll start by looking at the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, when the Vegas Golden Knights were conjured from the aether. Then-GM George McPhee spent the months leading up to the draft arranging deals with various clubs, to get whatever he could — as well as mining profit from acting as facilitator and intermediary — for his fledgling club.

Vegas Golden Knights Introduce General Manager Kelly McCrimmon Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

McPhee was extremely busy, and the results showed it. 17 deals involving “draft considerations” were logged with the NHL on the day of the draft. This yielded not only a bushel of draft picks, but also allowed McPhee to choose off the menu from a list of young talent while doing favors for teams by taking useless players or overpriced contracts off their hands.

This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the Seattle Kraken in 2021. As early as the fall of 2020 word was leaking out through various sources that Francis was taking a hard line with side deals. According to reports, Francis was telling teams that the least he was going to be asking for in exchange for “draft considerations” was a first-round pick; depending on the nature of the considerations clubs would ask for, the price would go up from there. This message was repeatedly leaked into the hockey media over several months, indicating that Francis was not softening his stance as the draft drew closer.

Remember that in the days leading up to the draft, the thing you heard over and over again was that the most valuable asset for any team was cap space. The Kraken had $81.5 million of it, more than double that of any other team in the league. But instead of offering it up to the highest bidder, Francis tried to set an arbitrary price that the marketplace couldn’t sustain. This foolishly ignores the basic tenets of supply and demand — prices reflect what the market will bear, no matter what you think your asset is worth.

2021 NHL Draft Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

In my opinion, this was probably Francis’ biggest mistake. Taking a hard line on the first-round pick hardened other teams’ GM’s against Seattle’s demands, and set up an environment where teams would strike deals with each other — at current market prices — instead of acquiescing to Francis’ artificially inflated terms. This approach reduced the number of draft picks that Seattle acquired to precisely zero, and took the Kraken out of the running for players they might otherwise have been able to acquire.

Who could the Kraken have snapped up? How many mid- and late-round draft picks could they have accumulated? We will never know. But I can confidently say the net gain would have been better than nothing — which is what Francis’ hard-line stance netted the team.

Solid Choices

Let’s start by saying that there were some solid choices made by Ron Francis and his team. Yanni Gourde from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jordan Eberle from the New York Islanders, Jared McCann from the Toronto Maple Leafs (via the Pittsburgh Penguins), and Vince Dunn from the St. Louis Blues were all excellent selections. And while pretty much everyone had Seattle selecting Brandon Tanev from Pittsburgh, I don’t think anyone — not even Francis and his scouts — could have predicted it would work out this well this quickly.

Get well soon, Turbo; we’re going to need you at full power to start the season in October.

We should also note that the part of the Kraken’s draft strategy that did pay off in a big way was their decision to only barely clear the salary cap minimum as required by the draft rules. This allowed them to hold tens of millions of dollars of cap space in reserve in order to tap into the biggest free agent class in the history of the league. You can count Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Wennberg, and Philipp Grubauer as the fruits of those efforts, and the Kraken are still sitting on nearly $8 million in available cap space as you read this.

There were also some situations where the best possible thing was to do nothing at all. The pickings from the Chicago Blackhawks were so meager and/or overpriced that selecting pending unrestricted free agent John Quenneville and then not offering him a contract was the smartest thing the Kraken could possibly have done. (Quenneville, as a matter of pure trivia, garnered no interest from any other NHL teams during free agency, and is currently playing in Europe.)

The Kraken did, however, make some choices that hindsight shows weren’t as ideal.

Just... Why?

There were a few names announced on the day of the draft that sent even close followers of the team yelling, “WHO?!?” at their TV’s and scrambling over to CapFriendly to find out what kind of fool-idiot mistake the club had just made. Two players come immediately to mind: defenseman Dennis Cholowski from the Detroit Red Wings, and winger Carsen Twarynski who was left exposed by the Philadelphia Flyers. Twarynski is still with the organization, though currently in the AHL; Cholowski was claimed off waivers by Washington, and has a single point in five games with the Caps.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

Who would have been preferable? The one thing that the Kraken have been lacking since day one is a face-off specialist — somebody who can win north of 55% of his draws night in and night out all year long. Detroit had such a player available in the draft as a pending free agent — Luke Glendening. He signed a 2-year deal with the Dallas Stars for $1.5 million AAV, and has been winning 57.8% of his face-offs in 30 games for his new club. Granted, Glendening’s advanced stats are nothing to write home about; but he has more points and a better CF% than Seattle’s Riley Sheahan, who is just 46% at the dot. Ouch.

From Philly, there were two players with monster contracts that (if Francis was open to more flexible deals) the Kraken could likely have been paid to take off of the Flyers hands: Jakub Voracek and James Van Riemsdyk. JVR is having a down year, tallying just 13 points in 34 games while amassing a worrisome minus-18 rating. But Voracek was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and is 1+22=23 in 32 games with a respectable 56.5 CF%. Is that worth $8.25 million a year? Not my call, but if there had been a deal on the table with a draft pick or prospect thrown in, the Kraken could easily have absorbed his salary.

New Jersey Devils v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The other selection that falls into this category is Kurtis MacDermid from the Los Angeles Kings. MacDermid is a dinosaur, a throw-back to the days of “old time hockey,” and functionally useless in today’s NHL. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Kraken were able to strike a deal to send him to Colorado shortly after the draft. It’s easy to see now that selecting and keeping Kings’ center Blake Lizotte, who has 8 points in 27 games with a plus-7 rating while winning 53% of his face-offs, would have landed the club a better return than the 2023 4th round pick we got for MacDermid.

Nit-Picking

I fully admit that there are some of these that are just pettiness, and it’s quite possible that in time the selection the Kraken made will prove to have been the smart move. But that doesn’t stop me from saying that, in hindsight, taking a pass on Colorado’s J.T. Compher (6+5=11 in 16 games) and instead selecting Joonas Donskoi (0+14=14 in 33 games) was probably sub-optimal. Compher’s current possession metrics are superior also.

Photos: NHL.com

I’ve not been shy about voicing my criticism of Jeremy Lauzon, Seattle’s pick from the Boston Bruins, who has made more bone-headed plays in his own zone than the rest of the team combined. When you think that shoot-first winger Ondrej Kase, who is 8+8=16 in 28 games so far this year with Toronto, was also made available by the Bruins you can’t help but second-guess this choice.

One more youngster from the defensive ranks is Cale Fleury, the selection from the Montreal Canadiens. Fleury is still at least two to three years away from competing for a roster spot with the Kraken, so there’s no real way to know if that was the best call on draft day.

Photos: NHL.com

But what I do know is that center Phillip Danault was available for the Kraken to talk to during the exclusive free agent signing period. He eventually signed for 6 years and $5.5 million AAV with Los Angeles, where he has 5+12=17 and a plus-8 in 31 games and wins 55% of his face-offs. Big difference in salary, to be sure; but also a big difference when the Kraken take the ice each night. It could also be argued that acquiring Danault would have made the signing of free agent Alexander Wennberg redundant, and the $4.5 million we are paying Wennberg could have gone to offset the additional cost for Danault.

The Big Debate

Going into the season, the one area where everyone was in agreement regarding the Kraken was goaltending. Seattle was poised to be the most formidable goaltending team in the league, with two of the top five netminders from last season (statistically) on the roster. Common wisdom among the hockey press was that the Kraken may as well have built a brick wall in the crease.

Then the season started, the Kraken quickly dropped to dead f***ing last in literally every measurable goaltending category, and the wailing and crying and gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair could be heard on neighboring continents.

Vancouver Canucks v Seattle Kraken Photo by Abbie Parr/NHLI via Getty Images

During the expansion draft there were (by my count) 80 goaltenders available, so it wasn’t like there was a shortage of available options. As of this writing, there are 60 goaltenders with at least 8 NHL starts this season (this includes both those available and those not available during the expansion draft). Ranked by save percentage, Chris Driedger comes in at #55, and Philipp Grubauer dead last at #60. To have literally dozens upon dozens of available choices, and to manage to pick not one but two goalies who placed in the bottom 10% statistically defies all logic and probability. And yet, Ron Francis managed to do it.

Edmonton Oilers v Seattle Kraken Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

I think it’s safe to say that, going forward, Seattle should outsource the selection of goaltenders, and leave Ron Francis completely out of the equation. While serving as GM for the Carolina Hurricanes, his acquisition of Blackhawks backup goaltender Scott Darling, and Darling’s subsequent collapse into statistical oblivion, should have served as a warning. Driedger and Grubauer prove that Darling was no fluke. Whether Francis is a victim of unfortunate luck or is just bad at scouting goalies really doesn’t matter in the final analysis: the outcome is the same regardless of the cause, and in the future he needs to be separated from the process for the good of the team.

The following is probably the most telling tidbit concerning just how horrific the Kraken have been in goal: Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray, in year 2 of a 4-year deal at $6.25 million AAV, performed better than Philipp Grubauer has to date — and Ottawa placed Murray on waivers. He cleared, and was sent to Belleville in the AHL where he played for over a month. It didn’t help: in his one start since being recalled he allowed 6 goals on 40 shots. But the upshot is this: one of the worst teams in the league had a #1 goalie that was playing so badly that they waived and demoted him — and not only is Seattle’s worse, but he’s still our starting netminder.

New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

The question then becomes, if not Grubauer and Driedger, then who? Well, nearly anybody would have been a better choice. When you do the breakdown by goals-against average guys like Casey DeSmith, Martin Jones, and Scott Wedgewood slip below Seattle’s pair in the rankings. But two of the goaltenders exposed by Edmonton — EDMONTON! — Mike Smith (*gagging noise*) and Mikko Koskinen (*retch*) have performed better this season than either of Seattle’s netminders — and the Canadian hockey press is pooping their Underoos over how bad the Oilers’ goaltending is.

Washington Capitals v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

Close followers of the draft process will suggest that hanging on to Vitek Vanecek, Seattle’s selection from the Washington Capitals, would have been a marked improvement. True, but by no means was he the best option. Vanecek is middle of the pack in save percentage right now, coming in at #28 of the 60 goaltenders with 8 or more starts.

If we were to have fired up the crystal ball back in July to find the cream of the crop, it turns out Seattle should have been looking at unrestricted free agent from Toronto (now with Carolina) Frederik Andersen, and Anaheim’s Anthony Stolarz. They have a combined record of 23-7-1 on the year, compared to Grubauer & Driedger’s 10-17-4. They would have cost Seattle $5.45 million AAV as well, far short of the $9.4 million the Kraken are shelling out for their last-place tandem.

Carolina Hurricanes v Seattle Kraken Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

Hindsight is 20/20, but in this case literally putting on a blindfold and throwing darts at a list of available goalies would likely have yielded better results than what was achieved by the Kraken. It is, actually, that bad.

The question going forward becomes, now that we’re locked in with these two for the next 3 years, what can be done? We here at Davy Jones’ Locker Room are going to give the boys some time to turn things around — maybe another 20 games or so — and if things don’t improve markedly we have an idea for a more in-depth assessment of Seattle’s goaltending situation. Watch this space.

Shuffling The D

I did not try to hide the fact that I was not in favor of the Kraken making Mark Giordano an expansion draft selection. It didn’t have to do with salary or his level of performance; it’s about respect and courtesy. Giordano is 35 years old, is in the last year of his contract, and had played his entire career in Calgary. You don’t yank a guy and his family out of the city he’s called home for the last 15 years. It’s disrespectful, and Ron Francis knows better. And, when I look at the numbers, it also wasn’t the smart move. As it turns out the Kraken could have altered two selections from two teams and come out nicely ahead.

Calgary Flames v Seattle Kraken Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The Kraken selected Giordano from the Calgary Flames, and Haydn Fleury from the Anaheim Ducks. The two of them combine for a net salary outlay of just over $8 million AAV. The other possible selections — both defensemen — were Oliver Kylington from the Flames, and Kevin Shattenkirk from Anaheim. Net salary outlay on those two would come in at roughly $4.65 million. Okay, so they’re cheaper — what about performance?

Let’s look at the youngsters first. Fleury has two goals and one assist in 18 games — and has been a healthy scratch for more than 10 tilts — with a CF% of 43.1, a career low. Kylington has skated in 30 of the Flames’ 31 outings thus far, with 18 points, a plus-8 rating, and a CF% of 55.0. Not really a contest there — it’s Kylington by a mile, and with a 40% discount to boot.

Seattle Kraken v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Between the big boys this year Giordano has fewer points but a much higher Corsi-For percentage: 4+7=11 and 54.0 CF% for Giordano, compared to Shattenkirk’s 6+14=20 and 46.4 CF%, albeit with 9 more games logged for Shattenkirk. Both Giordano and Shattenkirk get time on the PP and PK, and both are the quarterback of their power play units.

With guys who perform at this level we are not only looking at performance, but also leadership. That’s one of those intangibles that gets bandied around a lot, but with which we have no way to make an apples-to-apples comparison. But it should be noted that Shattenkirk has three times more playoff experience, plus a Stanley Cup ring from 2019-20 with Tampa Bay. Those last two factors might not matter much during the regular season, but they are pure gold come April — and in my opinion make Shattenkirk the better option.

Judgement Call

How would this have worked out? On paper it’s easy to tally up the points and the percentages and compare against however many millions of dollars spent and make a judgement call. If it were me making the selections on draft day I would have gone with Shattenkirk and Kylington, both players that I had listed in my final mock draft. Ron Francis saw it differently, and in 3 to 5 years I think we’ll have a pretty clear picture as to which would have been the better option.

I also had the Kraken selecting Carey Price out of Montreal. Shows you what I know...

It’s the same for all of these situations, really. With the exception of the clear-cut winners and the no-good-choices losers, it’s going to be a while before we can truly know how well the Kraken did at the draft. We can — and probably will! — revisit the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft selections as the inaugural season proceeds, see how well these all age, and perhaps turn around and second-guess our second-guesses given enough time for the picture to become clear.