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The Francis Plan: It was always going to work

Francis and Hakstol, you beautiful geniuses

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Seattle Kraken v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

Let us dispel the notion that the Kraken did not know what they were doing. They know, and have always known, exactly what they’re doing.

In a season where Dave Hakstol was expected by many to be fired, the Kraken currently sit second in the Pacific Division with a 26-14-4 record for 56 points.

From the Hakstol hire to the expansion draft, to draft and cap management, to pro and amateur scouting — all of it was planned, and Alex Mandrycky and Ron Francis were Keyser Soze. It just took a while to see it. Let’s go over the master strokes at each major decision point of the franchise:

The Expansion Draft: Revisited

I wrote about this in detail in October 2021 why Seattle and Vegas had such different expansion drafts, but the summary is:

  1. Vegas had the advantage of going first and giving teams only one year to prepare. Inexperience and lack of lead time combined for GMs to wildly overpay Vegas in side deals.
  2. Seattle did not enjoy these advantages. Teams had five years to get their rosters in order knowing the expansion draft was coming, removing Seattle’s leverage for side deals. Seattle couldn’t do anything about the fact that the other GMs learned their lesson after Vegas.
  3. Seattle’s expansion draft strategy prioritized saving cap room. This is going to become much more important later.

Compared to Vegas, the Kraken got very little in the way of assets in the immediate aftermath of the draft: just a 2nd-round pick and two 4th-round picks. GMs did not want to look stupid.

Then the trade deadline happened and the flood of draft picks came in as they traded away players they took in the expansion draft. The Kraken got a second-round pick for Jeremy Lauzon. Those deals that we expected at the expansion draft just happened a few months later. A 2023 draft pick spends the same whether you acquired it 11 months or 3 months before the draft.

Was it ultimately the same amount Vegas got? No. Vegas got an advantage by getting to go first and those conditions just were not going to repeat themselves for Seattle. Maybe not fair, but it is what it is.

Sure, we’ll take him off your hands

But the Kraken’s expansion draft strategy prioritized saving cap money, which Ron Francis planned to “weaponize.” Seattle did exactly that by picking up two weapons:

Oliver Bjorkstrand

Teams did not plan well for the flat cap, and when Columbus made a questionable free agent signing, they had a cap crunch.

Because of Seattle’s careful planning, going into the offseason they had two things most other teams didn’t: draft capital and cap room. For the pittance of a 3rd- and a 4th-round pick, Seattle traded for an underpriced Bjorkstrand who has four more years left on his contract.

This wasn’t just a good move; it was a fleecing.

Eeli Tolvanen

Perhaps you were underwhelmed by Bjorkstrand’s recent cold streak. May I interest you in Eeli Tolvanen, who Nashville put on waivers? Since joining the lineup on January 1st, Tolvanen has 7 points (5g, 2a) in 10 games. Boy howdy can Tolvanen shoot the puck, and his defense is excellent.

Tolvanen is under contract through next season at just $1.45 million, or a little less than twice the $750k league minimum. He is only twenty-three years old. He’s a first-round pick. His success in Seattle is not surprising. So why was he placed on waivers when he makes so little?

Because it turns out that when COVID surprisingly makes the cap mostly flat for up to five years, $1.45 million is a lot of money in a cap-strapped world. 19 teams can’t even afford a player making the league minimum of $750,000. Fourteen teams have zero (0) dollars in cap space. If the only currency McDonald’s took was salary cap room, the Vegas Golden Knights would be unable to afford an item on the dollar menu.

Tolvanen went on waivers, and 22 teams passed on him before Seattle, with the cap flexibility afforded to them by every decision made before it (starting with the expansion draft), was able to pick up an undervalued impact player on a cheap contract for two seasons with money left over. I’m lovin’ it.

It’s so bad that even the GM who put him on waivers admitted he may have flubbed this one less than a month after doing so.

The depth of the sea

Every skater sees meaningful minutes in hockey, so depth matters a lot. Having a better bottom of the roster than your opponent’s is more impactful than in the NBA, which is largely driven by stars.

When a team’s fourth line is on the ice, it’s often a break for the opposing team’s defense. Their goal is to stay on the ice for about 50 seconds, avoid penalties, and not give up a good scoring opportunity. If they accomplish this without accidentally setting anything on fire, it’s a success.

When Seattle’s fourth line is out there, defenses don’t get a break. Daniel Sprong and his 15 goals send their regards:

The Kraken roll four lines and everyone can score. Sprong is 6th in the NHL in goals/60 (clocking in at #4: Jared McCann).

The Kraken have the most 5-on-5 goals this season. Opponents never get a break against Seattle; they just face wave after wave of quality players.

Player development

Amateur (Shane Wright and friends)

The plan for Shane Wright’s development was roundly criticized as he repeatedly scratched. These scratches ultimately allowed Wright to face tougher competition in a 5-game stint in the AHL. He was then loaned to the World Junior Tournament, where he captained Team Canada to the gold medal and had this absolutely filthy goal in the gold medal game:

Wright’s been traded to the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, where he will finish out the season and cannot be called up. He’ll likely be in the NHL full-time next season. Leon Draisaitl($) took a similar path. He eventually developed into an MVP winner.

Elsewhere, the Kraken are fifth in EP Rinkside’s prospect rankings ($) after just two drafts. Andrew Poturalksi and Ryker Evans are in the AHL all-star classic. Jagger Firkus has 52 points in 38 games, including an earlier 20-game point streak. Seattle’s AHL affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, are the AHL’s top team.

Pro development

Daniel Sprong was a one-dimensional scorer last year but is now a more complete player and a potent scoring threat, already with a career-high 38 points with 15 goals and 13 assists while making the league minimum.

Vince Dunn has gone from good to quite good in Seattle and has an active eight-game point streak, the longest in franchise history.

Dunn’s partner, Adam Larsson, has turned into a strong shutdown defender. Matty Beniers is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. Will Borgen went from a “who?” to “oooh.”

Goaltending

Martin Jones, named NHL first star of the week, is the savior, but Philipp Grubauer has been a disaster, right?

Not exactly! Grubauer’s 5-on-5 numbers, which are more predictive, have been very good this season, with Grubauer 6th in goals saved above expected/60 per Moneypuck. Jones is 33rd in the same metric. Plenty good enough. The problem has been the penalty kill, where Grubauer and Jones are 5th and 10th worst, respectively (min. 10 games).

The goaltending isn’t as bad as it seems and it has steadily improved over the course of the season.

The penalty kill has murdered Grubauer’s stats. But even that’s on the uptick, because of...

Dave Hakstol

If this keeps up, there are going to be some serious apology letters owed to Dave Hakstol. He has the team playing hard every night, the team has strong 5-on-5 numbers, and perhaps most impressive is the willingness to change something when it’s not working.

Seattle’s penalty kill has been atrocious, but in 2023 the Kraken changed the penalty kill from a wedge + 1 formation to a more conservative box formation. The open backdoors that left the goalie (especially poor Grubauer!) hanging over and over again have been addressed by switching to a system that is less prone to that particular problem. Dave Hakstol is willing to take out something that isn’t working in favor of something else.

The sample sizes are small, but the PK change coincided with the start of the 2023 win streak.

Before the PK change: 109 PK attempts, 74 kills, 67.9%, 32nd

After the PK change: 27 PK attempts, 21 kills, 77.8%, 20th

It’s still not good, but the PK has looked better as of late. And more importantly, they understand when something isn’t working and look to improve it, which is more than can be said about a lot of coaches.

In year two it’s all coming together. The team believes in each other, and Dave Hakstol has them playing statistically sound, defensive hockey while still allowing for offensive freedom.

And it’s working.

“Not to make excuses, but last year was a tough start for us there. We never really got going. We had a lot of COVID-19 issues that are (detrimental) when trying to get 25 new guys together. To be honest, that’s more important off the ice to bond. We weren’t able to do that when COVID-19 ran through our room pretty early in the year.” -2021 Kraken captain Mark Giordano, 1/4/23

“I think that’s why we have a better record this year. We’re calm. We know we have a good team...even though we may be down a goal or two, we trust the process, we trust that we can come back in those games, we trust the system, and most time than not, we’re fighting towards the end and it works.” -Yanni Gourde, 1/9/23

An A+ organization from top to bottom

The Kraken:

  1. Are within spitting distance of Vegas for the division lead and are very likely to make the playoffs.
  2. Have boatloads of draft capital from the savvy trades made at the deadline which they can use to make trades for NHL players or continue to develop the farm.
  3. Have two blue-chip centers in Beniers and Wright and have a stocked farm system.
  4. Arguably the deepest forward group in the NHL and a very solid defensive group.

You can trace every decision starting with the supposedly disastrous expansion draft and see how they got they are today.

Everything is done with purpose and is connected, from the analytics team to the front office to the coaching staff. The future is very bright for this team. The present is very bright for this team.

But fundamentally? This team is good. This future is good. This front office is good. This coaching staff is good.

And aside from Shane Wright miraculously falling to #4 in the draft, none of this was the product of some crazy sequence of events. This was all the result of deliberate, calculated moves by Ron Francis and the rest of the front office.

If the Kraken make the playoffs, this season is a success. Anything beyond that is gravy. Every team has ups and downs and Seattle’s had some real doozies of highs and lows this season and I expect more doozies to come in the second half.

But keep your eyes on the prize: playoffs.

The Kraken have the best broadcast in the NHL, everything about Climate Pledge Arena is beautiful and the concession prices ar...okay so not everything is perfect. But that just leaves room for improvement!

Kraken fans should be over the moon happy right now. You could not ask for a better organization to be a fan of.

Look out, NHL. If you think 2022-23 is fun, the Kraken are just getting started.

I’m so excited.