The 2022-23 season officially begins on Wednesday, July 13th at 9am PDT. The National Hockey League calendar flips and contracts end, and teams can officially begin to sign free agents. The Kraken have plenty of holes to fill, and even more salary cap space with which to fill it. Not to mention that brand new American Hockey League team, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, need bodies as well. Seattle is expected to be a major player in free agency once again this summer, so let’s dive in and discover what we can expect from general manager Ron Francis this week.
Free agency is a great way for teams to quickly fill the last few gaps in their lineup before a playoff run. The Kraken, who finished last in the Pacific Division and held the third-worst record in the entire NHL last year, have several such holes to fill. As a team, they ranked:
That’s a lot of not-so-great rankings in a lot of very-important categories. Where to start?
I hate to continue cleaning a fresh sheet of ice here, but the goaltending in Seattle was really bad in 2021-22. All three goalies to get a start in Seattle last year — Philipp Grubauer, Chris Driedger, and Joey Daccord — posted the worst season-long save percentage of their career. Together, they combined for a meager .880 save percentage. Now, this isn’t the be-all, end-all statistic when it comes to goaltender performance. It doesn’t account for the amount of high-danger shots they faced, or how many turnovers in their own zone their defense corps left out there. But .880 is still a brutal place to start. If Seattle faced the same number of shots that they did in 2021-22, but instead had a league-average save percentage of .902, they would have allowed 232 goals instead of 284 — tied for the 9th best mark in the league with the Los Angeles Kings and the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Still, despite such dismal results in year one, the Kraken will not (and should not) go wild on the goalie market this free agency period, for more than one reason. First off, there isn’t a quick-fix solution coming to market this offseason. The best goalie available is likely Darcy Kuemper, and Seattle really doesn’t need to go with the “sign Colorado’s big free agent goalie” plan a second time. Secondly, Philipp Grubauer is under contract for five more seasons with a $5.9 million cap hit, and he’s coming off of the worst year of his career. It would take an even larger version of the Matt Murray trade made on Monday — where the Senators sent Murray and two draft picks to Toronto while retaining 25% of his cap hit in exchange for getting out of the final two years of his contract — in order to move on from Grubauer right now.
And finally (and this is the most important point) Philipp Grubauer will almost assuredly not be this bad again in 2022-23. Goalies are infamous for being incredibly difficult to predict from season to season. The Kraken would be far better off rolling with Grubauer again and expecting his numbers to regress towards the mean rather than ship away assets to get rid of his contract. Using his entire career to date, including this most recent season, he still has a career save percentage of .914.
Will Seattle add a goaltender in free agency this year? They might! But if they do, it will be someone to compete with Joey Daccord for the backup position while Chris Driedger recovers form a torn ACL, and not someone we should expect to see replacing Philipp Grubauer in the starter’s net.
Staying on the backend, let’s look at how much Seattle’s defense helped (or hurt) their goaltenders. We know the Kraken were near the bottom of the league in goals allowed, but it’s a bit trickier to parse, on the surface, how much of that falls on bad goaltending and how much falls on poor defensive play. If we dig a little deeper, it turns out the defense as a whole didn’t actually play too poorly. They allowed the 4th-fewest shots on goal of any team in the NHL, generated more shot attempts and shots on net than they allowed, and were precisely league-average in their total number of takeaways. They were 23rd in blocked shots, granted, but that’s more a function of the fact that they just didn’t allow a ton of shot attempts as a whole than anything else.
But what about those costly turnovers in their own zone? Well, Seattle actually had the 8th-fewest giveaways in their own defensive zone last year.
And while they were essentially league-average in expected goals against over the course of the season in all situations (per Evolving Hockey), the Kraken were actually top-10 in expected goals against during 5-on-5 play. All told, the defenders last year actually played pretty well, and we should expect the same group — at least the same top-4 of Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, Carson Soucy, and Vince Dunn — to continue to perform at a high level going into next season.
Ah, the offense. This was, in reality, the most predictable component of the Kraken’s inaugural campaign. Post-expansion draft analysis typically boiled down to: yeah, Seattle has some solid players and great defense, but who is going to score goals for them? That analysis proved to be true, as only three teams in the NHL scored fewer goals than Seattle (Sharks, Flyers, Coyotes — yes, the Habs scored more goals than the Kraken).
Jared McCann led the way and performed as well as the team hoped he would, given the chance to be a top-6 skater. He set career-highs in every major category — goals, assists, points, ice time, and power play goals. He was also the only skater to reach the 50-point plateau last year for Seattle.
Seattle has a whole heap of forwards that play a great defensive game and can kill penalties — Yanni Gourde, Karson Kuhlman, Brandon Tanev, Alex Wennberg, to name a few. But scoring goals just isn’t the strong suit for the majority of this front end. This is the biggest addressable issue that Seattle has to solve this offseason.
What they’ve done so far
The Kraken pretty loudly declared that they would attempt to solve the offensive crisis through the draft last week. Every single pick seemed to be a player whose biggest asset was their offensive ability — even the defenders. (Okay, maybe not goaltender Niklas Kokko, but every other one it holds true)
It all starts with Shane Wright, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick who slid to Seattle at pick No. 4. If he makes the NHL club right out of the gate — which he has the talent to do — Seattle could have their top two centers already locked down for the foreseeable future. Wright and Matty Beniers are players to build the offense around. McCann, along with Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle, can help fill out the top-6 for the next few years. If even one or two of the other forwards they drafted in the first two rounds can make the jump to the NHL soon — be it Jagger Firkus, Jani Nyman, or David Goyette — they’ll be in good shape when it comes to top-of-the-lineup scoring.
Even though we are only through phase one of the offseason, it’s clear that the team has already spent a significant amount of resources addressing their most glaring need.
What they have left to do
Circling back around to where we began this piece, Seattle has plenty of holes to fill. Finishing in the bottom of the standings means they can’t just run back the same, or only slightly altered, group of skaters they ran out there last year. Every report out there seems to indicate that the Kraken want to be big players during the free agency period, just as they were in their inaugural offseason. Which of those reports makes sense, given what we know about the state of the team, and which…don’t make sense?
Kadri will likely sign the biggest contract of all the free agent centers this summer. We’ve covered what he brings to the table already, and the majority of our readers would be happy to have him if he signs somewhere in the $6-$8 million range.
But, since that poll was posted, things have changed. Seattle got Shane Wright in the draft, not a top defender. The long-term plan has to be for Wright and Beniers to be the one-two punch at the center position in Seattle. Meanwhile, Yanni Gourde is still signed for three more seasons and has a long track record of elite 3rd-line center play. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest a high-value, long-term contract in the center position right now, with that core group. One of them could potentially move to the wing, like McCann did towards the end of last season, and that’ll likely be the plan should they move forward with Kadri. But after the draft they just had, allocating resources in other positions seems like the more prudent plan.
Would the Kraken give out the highest forward contract of the offseason by average annual value (AAV)? And to a winger? Well, they did it last year with Jaden Schwartz.
Gaudreau, however, is an entirely different ballgame. He hit triple digit points last season and has done nothing to indicate the 28-year old will drop off any time soon. Seattle has a lot more cap space and flexibility than most teams, and they are one of the few who could give Gaudreau a $10 million + AAV contract right now, no other moves required. This would be another long-term move for Seattle, where they set him up on the top line alongside whoever wins the first-line center spot between Beniers and Wright for the next decade.
It’s a big swing, but it’s not often a scorer of this caliber hits the open market.
They didn’t take him in the expansion draft, but they have another chance at him now. Palat has been a mainstay in the Lightning’s top-6 for every playoff run in these past five years. He’s scored 205 points 321 regular season games over that span, and added another 65 points in 92 playoff games. He’s a great option on the wing in the second tier of this free agent class. Evolving Hockey projects a contract around the $6 million AAV range, maybe even a bit lower. This would fall neatly in line with the other four contracts the Kraken have on the books in the $5-$6 million range — Eberle, Schwartz, Gourde, and McCann.
The concern with Palat is that he has always been paired alongside elite talent in the Tampa Bay lineup. His most frequent linemates over the past three seasons, in order of ice time (per Natural Stat Trick), have been:
He has literally spent nearly all his ice time with the four players Tampa Bay themselves identified as their most important forwards when they made their protected list ahead of the Seattle expansion draft. Palat is definitely a talented winger, but be wary of handing out a high-priced deal to a player who won’t be slotted alongside former Hart, Art Ross, and Rocket Richard trophy winners.
The theme of this whole piece has been how the Kraken really need to add scoring talent to their forward group, and their defense is mostly fine. And yet, one of the players considered most likely to be signed by the Kraken is top free agent defender John Klingberg.
Seattle does indeed have a solid top-4 group of defenders, but what they don’t have is long-term deals beyond Larsson and Oleksiak. Klingberg would add that stability for the next few years to the blue line, especially if Seattle loses either of Carson Soucy or Vince Dunn when their contracts are up in 2023. And for now, Klingberg could easily slide into the top-4, moving Dunn down to a bottom-pair, top-power-play-unit role similar to the one he thrived in during his tenure in St. Louis. This here would be another long-term outlook signing, with the plan of building scoring depth through the draft while assembling a top-notch defense through free agency.
Free agency opens on Wednesday at 9am, so get your morning coffee ready early and stay tuned to see just how aggressive the Kraken are in their second round of signings.