How the Kraken can fit John Klingberg under the cap

The wildest days of free agency are over, but two big names still remain unsigned. As of this writing, both forward Nazem Kadri and John Klingberg still do not have a home for the 2022-23 season. The Seattle Kraken had their name associated with both players at one time or another in the offseason, so one has to wonder whether general manager Ron Francis still has an eye on either skater. Kadri seems unlikely, as the Kraken spent a couple draft picks and nearly $11 million in cap space on two other forwards — André Burakovksy and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But Klingberg could still very much be in play.

Klingberg was not expected to be available this late in July. He himself probably didn’t expect it either, as we can gather based on the report that he recently fired his agent.

This could mean that the market for the 29-year old defender is not what he, nor the hockey world, expected it to be. That’s bad news for him, and good news for the teams that can still fit him under the cap.

Seattle’s cap situation

According to Cap Friendly, Seattle has an $80.4 million payroll and $2.1 million in cap space. Obviously Klingberg would not sign for as little as $2 million, but the Kraken do have a little room to maneuver to get him for a price he might accept.

Right now, the Kraken payroll at Cap Friendly features 15 forwards (including Brandon Tanev, but not including Ryan Donato), 6 defenders (Kempný currently not included), and 3 goaltenders (Chris Driedger included), for a total of 24 players. NHL teams at the start of the season can have a maximum of 23 players on their roster, so right away there are some moves that need to be made. Both Kole Lind and John Hayden are candidates to be moved to the AHL before the year starts. They are on two-way contracts, meaning they make a different salary depending on whether they are playing in the NHL or the AHL, but both would still need to pass through waivers. Lind cleared waivers last year when he was sent down at the beginning of the season, but it’s harder to gauge if Hayden would clear.

If we assume Kempný is expected to be on the NHL roster at the start of the season, that leaves us with 14 forwards, 7 defenders, and 3 goalies — though we know Driedger will move to injured reserve before the year begins. Last season, Seattle often carried 13 forwards and 8 defenders instead, as they were reluctant to send Will Borgen through waivers (though equally reluctant, especially early on, to give him NHL ice time). If they were to go that route again, you’d likely see someone like Karson Kuhlman — whom the Kraken themselves claimed on waivers last season — sent down to the AHL at the start of the season. That leaves us with one open roster spot.

The payroll for a Kraken team that sends down Kuhlman, Hayden, and Lind sits at around $79.8 million, with around $2.7 million in available space. But by moving Driedger to LTIR at the start of the year, Seattle could theoretically spend up to $3.5 million over the $82.5 million salary cap, leaving them with a little over $6 million to mess around with.

What would Klingberg cost?

According to at least one report, Klingberg was looking for around $6 million per year at the start of free agency — the same amount we just found in the Kraken’s payroll above.

While it’s not a record-breaking contract by any means, $6 million per year would still be the highest contract handed out to a defender signing with a new team this year. Mikhail Sergachev and Kris Letang re-signed with their own teams for $8.5 million and $6.1 million AAV, respectively, and no other defender reached the $6 million plateau. It’s entirely possible that the market for defenders was significantly different than what he (and his former agent) expected it to be. After all, last offseason saw a whopping five defenders sign for at least $9 million AAV — Seth Jones, Cale Makar, Dougie Hamilton, Zach Werenski, and Darnell Nurse.

With the market settling down, and most teams preparing for training camp, there just aren’t a ton of options for Klingberg at this point. He’ll likely have to settle for either a lower AAV or a short term deal with a competitive club that will allow him to hit free agency one more time in his prime years.

Should the Kraken do it?

That’s the big question now. It does put Seattle in a tenuous position relative to the cap, leaving them without a lot of flexibility to call players up in case of short-term injuries. It also presents a challenge if and when Chris Driedger returns to the lineup once he’s fully healthy — though that challenge is already penciled in, considering Seattle won’t want to keep three goalies on the roster at that time anyway.

If Klingberg were to sign a longer-term deal, it does lower Seattle’s flexibility in the future, but not by much. Joonas Donskoi’s $3.9 million hit comes off the books after the 2022-23 season, as will Martin Jones’ $2 million hit. Those alone could give Seattle the breathing room to fit Klingberg in next year without the use of LTIR. It would leave them with a difficult decision on the blue line though when it comes to keeping Vince Dunn and Carson Soucy. Soucy will be an unrestricted free agent after this year, while Dunn will be a restricted free agent. Dunn is younger and has a higher upside, particularly when it comes to generating offense. Soucy could be the cheaper option, but as a strong defender that’s also really big — something NHL general managers just love — he might also require a decent-sized payday. Klingberg on the books for the long term means Seattle might have to accept losing one of Dunn or Soucy next offseason.

What the Kraken would be getting in their place is a big, right-shot, puck-moving defender that has averaged more than 50 points per 82-game season in his career to date. He’s a top-pairing defender that will quarterback the first power play unit and provide some much-needed offense to the Kraken lineup.

Here’s what that roster could hypothetically look like if Ron Francis sneaks in this one last big deal before the season begins.

Francis has yet to hand out a contract in Seattle for more than $6 million AAV or a contract that lasts more than 5 years (with the exception of Philipp Grubauer’s 6-year deal). He’d have to break one of those precedents for this one, but with the free agent market slowing down he might not have to break both. It’s a deal that would certainly make the Kraken more competitive this season, but the much-celebrated cap space and flexibility that Seattle currently holds would take a serious hit.

What say you, the reader: should Seattle still be in on John Klingberg?