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Slow and Steady: A Kraken Offseason Preview

Despite a frenetically busy off-season, we could be cheering for a lot of familiar faces this fall

Vancouver Canucks v Seattle Kraken Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The first season in franchise history is in the books, and with it go the milestones and nostalgia and sentimentality of that inaugural campaign. It is now time to get down to the mundane business of building a hockey team. There will be numerous opportunities for Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis to do that in the coming weeks and months.

In order, they consist of: the contract buyout period; the NHL Entry Draft; and the free agent signing period. Because of a number of factors (COVID-19 related delays, mostly) the dates for each of these could potentially be in flux. The buyout period begins 48 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final; the NHL Entry Draft is tentatively scheduled for July 7th and 8th, but could be moved back if the playoffs are substantially delayed; and the free agent signing period begins July 13th with the same caveat.

Our own Sky had a piece recently about the moves the Kraken should make this off-season. It was thorough and well-researched, and I didn’t disagree with any of it. The topic I’ll be addressing today is, what moves Seattle most likely will make this off-season. The Kraken aren’t a regular NHL team; they will not be approaching the upcoming off-season in a regular way.

Different Approach

It was unfortunate that the Vegas Golden Knights were the predecessor to the Kraken, as their initial success was unfairly used as a yardstick for comparison. Vegas ownership declared very publicly that their goal was to win a Stanley Cup within six years. The decisions they made at the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and every subsequent move since then – acquiring ten players earning $5 million or more, and flouting the LTIR rules to try to keep all of them on the active roster – were done with this goal in mind. At the end of this piece we’ll revisit the Golden Knights and see how that’s working out for them.

2021 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Christopher Mast/2021 NHLI

Ron Francis used a different approach. His stated goal at the outset of his tenure as Seattle Kraken GM was that he was committed to “building a team through the draft.” That, to me, means Francis and the Kraken ownership group have a more long-term strategy than fans will be hoping for – and one that goes in direct contrast to the approach taken by Vegas.

The biggest indicator of this was the way players were selected in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. There was zero wheeling and dealing in advance of the draft to acquire top-performing players. The Kraken barely cleared the expansion draft minimum contract expenditure, keeping the maximum amount available for free agency. No selected or signed player earned more than $5.5 million, and Jamie Oleksiak had the longest contract length at 5 years. The vast majority of the players selected during the expansion draft had contract durations of one or two years, and were earning $2 million or less.

This suggests two things: first, that winning is not a priority right now. Several high-impact players (with much higher salaries) were available in the expansion draft, and also in free agency, but were passed over. Those players could have made a substantial difference in the Kraken’s fortunes in their first season and beyond, but acquiring them was not in line with the strategy that Francis wanted to implement.

And secondly, Francis expects his upcoming draft choices to be able to step into roles currently held by the higher-priced players on the roster within 5 years. The first of those players, center Matty Beniers, recently signed with the team and showed that he is ready for a full-time role with Seattle. Over the next four years we will see more Kraken draft picks make the jump to the NHL – and as that happens, the higher-priced veterans currently on the roster will be moved via trade or simply not re-signed. In the meantime, what you see is what you get. Here’s what I mean…

Building A Young Core

I have identified three players that I think will be with the Kraken for the next 5 years, and likely beyond that: forwards Jared McCann and Matty Beniers, and defenseman Vince Dunn. I do not expect any other current players to be with the club for the 2026-27 season. Since defensemen generally take longer to mature than forwards, it’s possible that they also hang on to Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak beyond that point. The only other possible exception to that is Philipp Grubauer, who has five years remaining on his contract, and with his current level of play so inadequate it is unlikely there will be any option to get rid of him except via contract buyout.

Having lived in the area and followed the Chicago Blackhawks for a lengthy period of time, that team is my frame of reference for a “core” of players. Chicago’s three recent championship runs had five players in common: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Four of those five players were Blackhawks draft picks.

Photo: NHL.com

Other notable Chicago draft selections who contributed to one or more Stanley Cup seasons include Brandon Saad, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Corey Crawford, Dustin Byfuglien, Teuvo Teravainen, Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, and Marcus Kruger, among others. Each of the three times since 2010 that the names of Blackhawks players were engraved in Lord Stanley’s venerated chalice, at least 10 of those names were Chicago draft picks.

That’s what it means to build a team through the draft; and that’s what Ron Francis is trying to achieve. But that takes time.

Learn To Live With Disappointment

Now we take a look at what we will likely see happen during each of the significant league events starting in late June. Understanding that there is a long-term strategy in place, and that short-term success is not part of that blueprint, be prepared to be underwhelmed.

Contract Buyout Period

Nothing. Despite the disappointing play of Philipp Grubauer and the absurd cost of Joonas Donskoi’s contract relative to his offensive output, the Kraken will stand pat. In Grubauer’s case, they’re going to reason that he had a bad year, and is likely to pull out of his current tailspin (never mind the Kraken would be eating dead cap of $2 million AAV every year for a full decade); with Donskoi, he brings enough to the table defensively that they’d be willing to play him in that role and wait out the remaining year on his contract.

Image & Data: Capfriendly.com

NHL Entry Draft

This is where all of the fun will be. Seattle has 12 – twelve! – draft picks in the 2022 amateur draft, which includes five picks in the first two rounds. The first thing I expect to see is Ron Francis looking to move up in the draft in the second round, packaging a second-round and later-round pick to upgrade his Florida or Toronto pick by 10 or more slots in the order. This year’s crop is being billed as a deep draft, so the player you get with a higher second-round pick is similar to what a first-round pick would be in a normal year. It’s also not a crazy idea to think that, if the right deal presents itself, a current roster player might be moved if a 2022 first-round pick is coming back Seattle’s way — though I would be hard-pressed to tell you who would draw that level of interest from other teams.

With the Kraken performing so poorly this season, the benefit will be picking in the top five overall for the second year in a row. The juiciest fruit on the vine this year are nearly all centers, so look for our first-round pick to go that direction. Beyond that, expect Ron Francis’ staff to spread their early-round picks across forwards, defensemen, and possibly even a goaltender; and expect a lot of “character guy” and “tough to play against” selections in the later rounds.

Kraken fans should absolutely tune in for coverage of the draft as it happens; history will remember this draft as a make-or-break year for the future of the Seattle Kraken. In theory, we could see as many as eight players drafted in 2021 and 2022 playing with the club by the 2024-25 season. You will want to get a front-row seat to watch your future favorite players put on Seattle jerseys for the first time.

One additional tidbit to keep an eye on. The Kraken ended the season third-last in the league. There is a better than 50% chance that they will actually drop one or two places in the draft order. There are two, maybe three players who are considered NHL ready this fall. If the Kraken drop out of the top three, and if they are keen on a specific player who might get drafted lower than the top five, watch out for them trading down by a few places in the first round to secure a better draft position in the second round, or possibly even add a second round pick.

2022 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

There’s one player specifically that I have in mind for this, and it’s Morgan Geekie’s little brother Conor (above). When I say “little” I mean only in age: he’s 6’4” and 205 lbs. – at age 17. Central Scouting ranks him in the top five among North American skaters, but he is doubtful to go in the top five overall draft selections. I don’t know whether the Kraken are high on him or not, but this is a storyline worth paying attention to for obvious reasons.

Free Agency

This is where the disappointment will hit hard, and I mean hard. This season’s last-place finish illustrated quite clearly that the Kraken need upgrades in all three departments. Our own Sean Mallon outlined a few possible choices that might help boost Seattle’s position in the standings next season. That’s what they should do, and if this were a regular team with a regular strategy, I would agree and probably suggest a few additional names to go after.

Unfortunately, because we’re talking here about what the Kraken will do, I am the bearer of bad tidings for those fans expecting the Kraken to make a splash in free agency this summer — they simply won’t. Yes, that’s correct: I believe the Kraken will acquire zero impact players during the free agent signing period. Here’s why.

With his strategy of building the team through the draft – and not caring about the performance of the club while his draft selections mature – Ron Francis will be happy to let the next two to three years roll with the following players in place: forwards Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Wennberg, Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, and Matty Beniers; defensemen Jamie Oleksiak, Adam Larsson, Vince Dunn, and Carson Soucy (who could be signed to a contract extension as early as this summer); and the two current netminders, Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger.

What that means in practical terms is, there are no openings for impact players to fill: not in the Kraken top six forwards, not in the top two defensive pairings, and not in goal. The remainder of the roster will be filled out by role-players with low-dollar contracts, a number of whom you already know. I expect forwards Ryan Donato, Daniel Sprong, Karson Kuhlman, Kole Lind, and Alexander True to be re-signed; the same goes for defensemen Haydn Fleury, younger brother Cale Fleury, and Dennis Cholowski. Every one of these guys can be had for a price near or below $1 million AAV.

The guys on the bubble that will likely come down to emotional decisions from the front office are Victor Rask and Morgan Geekie – both are under-performing, but both have connections to Ron Francis during his time in Carolina. Defenseman Will Borgen and goaltender Joey Daccord are already under contract and have performed well enough that the Kraken won’t be looking to move them.

The only other possible change I can see happening is trading Alex Wennberg with some salary retained for an early-round pick at this year’s draft. The Kraken are deep at center with Matty Beniers now in the fold, and having your top three centers being Gourde, Beniers, and McCann, Wennberg has been made redundant. But even if that happens, it still doesn’t open any slots in the top six.

So there’s next year’s team — same as this year’s team. Sure, there will be some minor acquisitions, mostly forwards on one-year deals paying them budget-friendly salaries. But you can forget about big-dollar impact players that will be coming available this July. It’s my belief that such players are not on the Kraken’s radar, and Ron Francis won’t be focusing on any of them.

Image: theahl.com

What he will be focusing on is populating the minor league affiliate. The 2022-23 season will be the first year that Seattle has a dedicated AHL club that they own, control, and therefore must supply with players. The players who will make up next season’s Coachella Valley Firebirds have to be acquired this off-season, and that task will receive the bulk of the effort Ron Francis’ scouting team will be exerting in the coming months.

They will be looking for three types of players for Coachella Valley: young-ish (26 to 28 years old) veterans who have got 40 or more NHL games under their belts, mainly to act as mentors for the younger guys but also to fill in with the big club when injuries occur; young (22 to 25 years old) players who they feel are undiscovered talents, or who haven’t been utilized to their greatest potential with their former clubs; and long-shots of any age — former first- and second-round draft picks who didn’t work out for one reason or another at the NHL level. These will be guys who have proven themselves in the AHL and can contribute every night, but who Seattle can acquire cheaply and give the opportunity to live up to their earlier potential. The names Frederik Gauthier, Zach Senyshyn, and Stephan Noesen jump to the forefront.

I expect there will be between 10 and 15 acquisitions falling into this category early in the free agent signing period. Who, what position, and how many will depend on the makeup of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft class that the Kraken are able to assemble. If more entry draft selections are older and could potentially make the jump to the AHL in the upcoming season, then fewer free agents will be needed. If the draft class is younger, then more free agents will be signed. Defense is the biggest need, with only youngster Ryker Evans under contract for next year. Netminder Antoine Bibeau has had an above-average season in the AHL and ECHL this year, so don’t be surprised if he joins Joey Daccord in Coachella Valley next season.

Understand also that the Firebirds can (and will) sign their own players to AHL-only contracts, but those players will not be eligible to be called up by Seattle. In that way they will fill out the 23-man roster they will need to compete next season. The other thing the newly-minted club will need is administrators, coaches, and support staff — everyone from the GM to the Zamboni driver — so Ron Francis isn’t going to have a lot of time for golf this year.

Settle In

Recently I did some research on the initial success of NHL expansion teams. With the exception of Vegas, the process of getting an expansion team from draft day to their first playoff appearance was usually lengthy and painful. Look at the season-by-season results for the Columbus Blue Jackets shown below. It took them 8 seasons to qualify for the post-season, 13 seasons to win their first playoff game, and 18 seasons to win their first playoff series.

Columbus isn’t the best example, but it’s by no means the worst either. The erstwhile Atlanta Thrashers — now the current iteration of the Winnipeg Jets — made just one post-season appearance in their 11 season existence, but failed to win a single playoff game. Historically, if your expansion team made the playoffs in the first three years, it was a genuine achievement; and Vegas was the only team in the modern era to make the playoffs in their first two years of existence.

Ron Francis and the Kraken ownership group knew this; they went into this process with their eyes wide open. In advance of the Vegas draft in 2017 the rules and format of the expansion draft were modified to allow teams to be more competitive out of the gate. The Golden Knights took advantage of those changes to the fullest; the Kraken chose not to. That, more than anything, illustrates pretty clearly where management’s priorities lie. If the Golden Knights are the hare, the Kraken are the tortoise: it’s Ronnie Franchise’s belief that slow and steady wins the race. Time will tell if he’s right.

So I don’t think this is going to be a quick fix. It really can’t be, because management and ownership are following their original plan – there’s nothing to “fix”! So settle in, get comfortable, and prepare for a losing season next year and most likely the year after that. There will be incremental changes over the next two seasons, to be sure; but any success that results from those will be happy coincidence, and little more. The fun will be in watching this team – and the players this team drafts – go from last place to playoff contender, and hopefully to Stanley Cup Champions.

Epilogue

Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights in game 4 of the Stanley Cup Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As we mentioned earlier, the Golden Knights’ explicit goal was to win a Stanley Cup within six years. Vegas went to the Stanley Cup Finals their first season in existence, but lost to the Washington Capitals. This year, their fifth, they missed the playoffs altogether. Essentially, the team’s evolution has been in reverse – starting big and declining from there.

Based on this it’s entirely possible that, just like in Aesop’s famous fable, the tortoise will reach the finish line ahead of the hare.