What to expect from Seattle Kraken after early free-agent moves, draft
Like tangling with a mythical Kraken, it’s dangerous to assume too much about Seattle’s expansion NHL team. Yet like a wayward crew of pirates (picture them with hackneyed accents), hockey writers must forge on. Those takes aren’t going to heat up by themselves.
These are treacherous waters, though.
Consider, for instance, the pitfalls of comparing the Kraken and Golden Knights without going overboard. There’s also the impossible battle between the real-life Seattle Kraken, and the versions that live on in our imaginations.
Down the line, we can grumble over grievances about missed opportunities. Deeper comparisons between the first days of the Kraken and Golden Knights have merit, too.
For now, though, let’s spend less time looking at what the Kraken should have done, and focus more on what they actually did. Then we can ponder the perilous question of how we think they’ll do.
Solid, unspectacular performance re: 2021 NHL Draft, adding future picks
Overall, the Kraken scored decent reviews for their 2021 NHL Draft haul. In particular, pundits approved of the Kraken playing it safe with Matty Beniers at No. 2 overall. Broadly, they hit a “double” rather than homering. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman gave them a B-, while Elite Prospects graded them with a B.
Solid enough. But, yeah, it would’ve been nice if the Kraken made more than seven draft picks.
As of this writing, the Kraken racked up some extra 2022 and 2023 NHL Draft picks by trading the likes of Vitek Vanecek and Tyler Pitlick:
Extra 2022 NHL Draft picks for Kraken: Flames’ fourth-rounder
Extra 2023 NHL Draft picks for Kraken: Jets’ second-rounder, Avalanche’s fourth-rounder
For the sake of their greater ambitions, let’s hope -- and assume -- that the Kraken will load up more for future drafts. In these early days, they deserve a grade that fits with a larger Kraken theme: generally inoffensive, but uninspiring.
Maybe a little baffling, too, honestly. Kraken fans should feel some jealousy about how other teams “weaponized” their cap space.
An early view of the Kraken’s likely style, starting with Hakstol as head coach
Speaking of uninspiring, that was the wider reaction to the Kraken hiring Dave Hakstol as their first head coach. Despite what looked like a crowded pool of more exciting coaching candidates, the Kraken opted for Hakstol.
Countering some of that “meh,” energy, there is this larger point about coaches learning from previous mistakes. Maybe Hakstol’s changed more than just his facial hair?
Thinking about the Hakstol thing, there have been several coaches in recent years who had very, very underwhelming first HC stints, but made good in second spot. Mike Sullivan, Bruce Cassidy, Pete DeBoer among them. What we can't know yet is what Hak learned from PHI experience.— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) June 24, 2021
An overwhelming focus on defense
Intriguingly, the Kraken are set up to be “coachable,” even if Hakstol ends up being a bland bench boss.
While their expansion draft haul wasn’t thrilling, the Kraken invested plenty in defense, and even focused on forwards with serious defensive acumen. Jaden Schwartz also meshes with Yanni Gourde, Jared McCann, and others as two-way-minded forwards. Their defense corps is responsible, if not very flashy.
If you squint hard enough, you could picture the Kraken echoing the Canadiens’ playoff run.
Ideally, that defensive structure would help the Kraken to get the most out of unexpected free-agent splash Philipp Grubauer, not to mention another interesting goalie risk in Chris Driedger.
Can the Kraken score enough goals? Fair question, but they’re wagering that they’ll shut opponents down often enough to succeed.
An older team with quite a bit of term
Around the expansion draft, Ron Francis emphasized that the Kraken valued cap space most of all.
Technically, that’s still true -- even after free-agent investments in Grubauer, Schwartz, and Alexander Wennberg. Via Cap Friendly, the Kraken maintain about $16.94 million in cap space, with 19 roster spots covered. (RFA Vince Dunn may eat some of that space, but still.)
That said, while there aren’t huge cap hits on the Kraken roster, there’s already a surprising number of risks. Look at the terms they threw around on players with some “aging curve” concerns. (Contracts that the Kraken signed themselves are underlined.)
Six years (through 2026-27): Grubauer, 29, $5.9M cap hit.
Five years (through 2025-26): Schwartz, 29, $5.5M; Jamie Oleksiak, 28, $4.6M.
Four years (through 2024-25): Yanni Gourde, 29, $5.17M; Brandon Tanev, 29, $3.5M; Adam Larsson, 28, $4M.
Three years (through 2023-24): Jordan Eberle, 31, $5.5M; Alexander Wennberg, 26, $4.5M; Chris Driedger, 27, $3.5M.
That ... doesn’t exactly look like a team that had a totally clean slate a few weeks ago, does it? Curious.
Seattle locked themselves into a very random core in less than a week (Schwartz/Tanev/Wennberg/Gourde/Larsson/Oleksiak). I think Vegas was all 1-2 year deals in their first year.— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) July 29, 2021
The scariest contracts, like that of Sergei Bobrovsky, get the most attention. Teams can get themselves into trouble with mid-range deals, though -- at least when the mistakes pile up. The Kraken already must grapple with those questions.
That includes rolling the dice by spending $9.4 million in cap space on relatively unproven goalies.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about both Chris Driedger and Philipp Grubauer. Personally, I would’ve preferred to dip my toe in that pool, rather than dive right in.
[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
Handing Driedger $3.5M for three years is risky, considering he’s only played 41 NHL games. He was fantastic in those games, but that’s not much of a sample size.
Philipp Grubauer boasts a larger body of work, yet he hasn’t proven that his body can hold up to the work of a No. 1 workload. As strong as he’s often been, Grubauer’s never played more than 40 games in a season.
Again, both Grubauer and Driedger have been very good. Plenty of the players ranked as “analytics darlings” over the years, too. There’s even a larger vision of a puck-hogging, defensive-minded team.
It’s just difficult not to feel a nagging sense that the rewards might not justify the risks. The Kraken didn’t really load up on “side deals” to absorb risky contracts like that of Tanev and Eberle, so if they disappoint, there’s no sweetener. Many of those deals might actually prompt the Kraken to be the ones to bribe other teams to take on problem contracts.
(Eight players have either a no-trade or no-movement clause, according to Cap Friendly’s listings.)
Generally speaking, the Kraken look like a team with a “high floor, but a low ceiling.”
A playoff path in a possibly pathetic Pacific
The bad news for budding Kraken fans is that this team doesn’t look very dynamic. At least on paper.
The good news is that they’re in a nice position to snag one of the potentially-lowly Pacific Division’'s three playoff spots.
Let’s consider how the Kraken’s Pacific Division competition looks, at least early in 2021 NHL Free Agency.
- Whether the Golden Knights make another big splash or not, they loom as an obvious favorite.
- The Canucks spent like a favorite, and there’s talent. Hmm.
- At times, the Oilers’ offseason felt comical enough to warrant a laugh track. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can still drag them far, though.
- Losing Mark Giordano hurts an already-hurting Flames team. There are pieces of a respectable team here, but they’re kind of a mess.
- The Ducks might be in partial rebuild denial, yet they’re expected to play like a team that’s tanking.
- The Sharks are like an expensive version of the Ducks. They’re really banking on goaltending being the answer to their many problems. (Coughs nervously.)
- Of the California teams, the Kings pose the biggest threat to make a big step. They’re no guarantee to actually be ready, though.
Not a bad situation for the Kraken to nab one of the three Pacific Division playoff spots, eh? There’s at least a chance that the Central Division wouldn’t absorb the two wild-card spots, either.
That optimism dims thanks to the threat of ending up in “puck purgatory.” The Kraken could end up good enough to finish ahead of the California teams, but fall short of the playoffs.
Being respectable as an expansion team is nice enough, even post-Golden-Knights. Still, this is the Kraken’s “honeymoon period,” and tanking could make a lot of sense with all of the hype around the 2022 and 2023 NHL Drafts classes.
So, a mediocre Pacific Division could be a double-edged sword.
Months ago, it felt like the Kraken would either:
A: Tank, choosing short-term pain in hopes of long-term gain.
B: Choose the “Why wait?” route and compete ASAP. (This seemed more feasible when some big names ended up exposed in the expansion draft.)
Instead, it seems like the Kraken chose choice C: something closer to “middle of the road.”
There’s time for the Kraken to veer toward a different path. After all, while the Golden Knights made big expansion draft gambits, their boldest moves came later. For now, though, it’s fair to question the Kraken’s vision, while also expecting them to be respectable.