How far are the Kraken from the current Cup champions?

As we turn the page on the 2021-22 National Hockey League season, the Colorado Avalanche are the Stanley Cup champs and the Seattle Kraken are picking No. 4 overall at the NHL Entry Draft next week. It would seem hard for two teams to be further apart. After all, building a contender is a marathon, not a sprint. Even the trajectory of a team like the Vegas Golden Knights, who came just three wins shy of winning it all in their inaugural season, isn’t as straightforward as you might think — the Knights missed the playoff cut this year.

So how do you build a winner, and how close is Seattle to getting there? The fanbase is smart enough to realize that next season is unlikely, but as years three, four, and five roll along, the patience with general manager Ron Francis may begin to wear thin if significant steps aren’t taken. So let’s look at the two rosters and see how big the gap truly is between a second year club and one that can win it all.

Scoring (and preventing) goals

From a high level point of view, there’s a major difference between a team with champion pedigree and a draft lottery club. The Avalanche scored an average of 3.76 goals per game, while allowing 2.83. The Kraken, on the other hand, are basically the reverse of those stats (2.60 GF, 3.46 GA). It’s basically a swing of two goals a game, and it’s pretty clearly something that needs to be addressed.

The Avs also own a 10% edge in power play production (24% vs 14% for Seattle). Penalty killing is closer, 79% for Colorado vs. Seattle’s 75%, but that five percent edge translates into the goal differential just as surely as the power play does. Special teams comes down to two factors for any NHL team, personnel and scheme. The Avs have their high draft picks (Mackinnon, Makar, Rantanen) in the prime of their careers, as well as their free agent signings. Those are on the way for Seattle, including a top five pick at next week’s draft.

Cap Spending

Colorado went for it this year, and rightly so. They spent all the way to the $82 million cap ceiling, even exceeding it slightly when you look at their LTIR (long term injured reserve) dollars. The Kraken only got to $73.7 million in year one. Not an insignificant amount, nor the lowest in the league, but that extra $7.8 million in future years could equal a high end point producing forward or a top two defenseman.

Seattle’s ownership has deep enough pockets to match the spending of any team in the league and spend to the cap. But it made a decent amount of sense last season not to do so. The team could have gained some assets by taking on an ugly contract to help another club gain cap flexibility, but signing expensive free agents or long term deals with an existing roster that wasn’t quite good enough would have been a mistake if they used up the flexibility in future years. The time will come to spend to the limit, including the odd overpayment when the right player is on the market, but it will take management skill to know that the moment has arrived.

Roster Comparison

Here is Colorado’s Cup-winning skater group:

This group includes eight UFA’s and two RFA’s, so the Avs roster will most likely look different in 2022/23. Cup winners usually get overpaid on the market, especially players like Nazim Kadri, following a career best season and a clutch Cup Final overtime goal. He’s unlikely to stay with Colorado next season because, as a player in his early 30’s, he’ll be looking to cash in on the great numbers he just put up.

But no matter who the Avs lose this offseason, they’ll be a threat to repeat as Cup champs because of their core.

Here are the 2021-22 Kraken skaters for comparison:

Even amongst a Kraken leadership group that I’d personally say is loaded with intangibles like “character” and “desire”, the comparison with the Avalanche is pretty clear. The list above doesn’t include Mark Giordano, who left at the trade deadline and opted to stay with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the foreseeable future, but even with his name included, the Avs simply have more talent. But that could change if youngsters like Matty Beniers and the upcoming No. 4 overall pick can turn into the league’s next generation of stars. After all, this core group in Colorado didn’t turn up until a few bad seasons led to drafting the likes of Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar, both with top-10 picks.

The Kraken ended the season with only two UFAs on the roster (Riley Sheahan and Victor Rask). They had a much higher number of RFAs (6), which makes sense having drafted their team last summer. Players under club control for multiple years have more runway to develop into a complete player, and can net a bigger return in a trade.

Player to player comps

One hopes the Kraken’s answer to Nathan Mackinnon is Matty Beniers. That’s not the case just yet, but it’s the ideal outcome. The team has no current comparable to Mikko Rantanen, a winger with size, skating and scoring touch, but maybe someone like Ryan Winterton blossoms into the sort of player that can ride shotgun with Beniers. Gabriel Landeskog, a ten year veteran with intangibles galore and high draft pedigree, who has been scoring at a point-per-game pace the last few years, is better than Eberle, Gourde or Schwartz, and it seems a lot to ask Beniers to fill that role as well.

In net, the Kraken have Colorado’s old flame, a Vezina finalist who left as a free agent, signing a deal the Avs couldn’t afford without other roster moves to stay under the cap. Grubauer struggled, but let’s face it, everyone did, and he has even odds of returning to form behind a more solid and cohesive defensive core than the team iced last season. The Avalanche’s replacement for Gru, Darcy Kuemper, put up a middling 0.902 save percentage on his way to a Cup win. Grubauer is capable of that and more theoretically.

On defense either of Adam Larsson or Jamie Oleksiak might turn into this team’s Eric Johnson. A longtime teammate, who rode out the losing season(s) and was there when the talented core arrived, and somebody who inspires greatness in others as they try to get him a ring before his career winds down. But then there’s Cale Makar. Rookie of the year when came into the league, Norris Trophy winner, Hart Memorial Trophy winner and a force from the back end. The Kraken have nobody who holds a candle on the roster or in the system.

But don’t feel bad, because nobody else in the NHL does either. Makar just might be the defensive version of Connor McDavid, he’s that good. He will be a threat to win trophies and championships for the next decade, and Seattle’s path to their first Cup likely goes through Mile High city. The funny part of it all is that Makar is only an Av by fluke. He was their consolation pick at No. 4 overall, when they fell three spots down in the lottery. It wasn’t great scouting or research that got the Avalanche’s not-so-secret weapon, just a mix of seemingly bad (but in hindsight good) luck.

And guess which team fell down to the No. 4 pick this year Kraken fans?