How Seattle Can Meet The Draft Requirements
And Still Make A Big Splash In Free Agency
(Editor’s Note: The transactions consummated in the days leading up to the roster freeze have rendered the CapFriendly link to our draft moot. But despite some of the pieces to the puzzle having changed hands, the principle remains as valid today as it was when this was published; meet the draft requirements, minimize cap, acquire players with trade value, and make a big splash in free agency.)
The rules for the NHL Expansion Draft in both 2017 and 2021 are unlike any NHL expansion draft prior to this. In years gone by the teams themselves have crafted the rules, and have done so to their own benefit — allowing enough room to protect essentially all the players they want to.
For this draft, the rules were crafted at the league level, and they excluded the teams from having any input. Instead they started with a mandate: make the expansion team competitive. Then they brought in outside experts to craft a set of rules that would allow the expansion team far more opportunity to select quality players.
In 2017 the results were obvious and immediate. The (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights selected a team good enough to go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final their first year. The other 30 teams in the league screamed bloody murder, but they also vowed to themselves that they would not get screwed so thoroughly in 2021. Thence, preparations began.
A Different Draft
In preparation for the 2021 draft teams have done three things differently. First, they have been stingy with the no-movement clauses. Second, they have signed a huge number of contracts that end in the season before the draft is to take place, so they do not have to protect those players. And third, to the degree that they can, they only have multi-year contracts on the number of players they know they can protect: 7 skaters, 3 defensemen, and a goaltender. Those 11 players become the core of the team, and either rookies or pending free agents make up the remaining roster spots.
What does this mean for the Seattle Kraken? It means that there is no way to draft a complete team — including top six forwards, top pairing defensemen, and a starting goaltender — merely from the choices available on teams’ lists of exposed players. Most of what they will be choosing from is bottom-six forwards, middle- and bottom-pairing defensemen, and backup goalies. There’s no way that team makes the playoffs.
But the side-effect of this planning by the teams is that when free agency opens this off-season, it will reveal the biggest crop of free agents in league history. Fully half — half! — of the league has their contract expire at the conclusion of this season. Two thirds of those expiring contracts are for players who will be unrestricted free agents — free to sign with any team they want.
So while the Kraken may not be able to draft a competitive team like (not Las) Vegas did, they sure as hell have the opportunity to sign a competitive team when free agency opens. However, that creates a conundrum: how do you draft one team, and then in the fall have a different team take the ice? How do you meet the draft requirements and still have money — and roster space — to bring in the free agents to assemble a team capable of making the playoffs?
Today, we explore this exact question: is it possible to hack the draft?
Following The Rules
We have an in-depth article going into all of the specific rules that apply to the draft. Refer to that piece if you want to get more specific information, but for today we’ll quickly go over a couple of things that will pertain to what we’re about to try and do.
First, the minimum amount of money that they Kraken have to “spend” (the value of the contracts for players they draft) is 60% of the salary cap. That means when the dust settles, the Kraken have to have $48.9 million worth of players under contract for next year. Remember also that the Kraken have to wait one full year before buying out any player they draft — so no drafting guys and buying them out a day later.
Next, there are requirements pertaining to the minimum numbers of players by position. The Kraken have to draft at least 14 forwards, at least 9 defensemen, and at least 3 goaltenders. You’ll notice that adds up to 26, but they are required to draft 30 players — one from each team. That means the remaining 4 players can be at whatever position the Kraken choose.
And finally, the Kraken have to draft a minimum of 20 players who are under contract for next season. It would be great if they could just draft 30 guys who were going to be unrestricted free agents and then not re-sign any of them, but that’s not allowed. 20 players under contract have to be drafted.
So those are the requirements the draft imposes. Now let’s see how we can get around them.
Bending The Rules
The first thing to remember is, the Kraken don’t have to keep any of the players they draft. They can draft 30 players, then turn around the next day and trade every one of them. There is no requirement that a certain number of players selected during the draft must be on the roster on the first day of the season. Once the draft is over, the Kraken are free to wheel and deal just like any other team.
Additionally, the Kraken can draft some unrestricted free agents. These players will likely walk away when free agency opens, but for teams where there are no decent players available, this is an option. If nothing else, it will help meet the players-by-position requirement imposed by the draft.
Next, just like every other team, the Kraken can retain salary on any player they trade. So if the Kraken draft a player earning $4 million, they can trade him away while retaining up to 50% of his salary, and the team who acquires him only pays him $2 million. They can only have a total of 3 retained salary transactions on the books at any time, so they have to be strategic about when to do this.
Exploring that idea further, and adding a twist: the Kraken can use the draft as go-between for two teams interested in trading players. Here’s an example, and we’re being intentionally absurd when we do this just so everything is clear. Let’s say the Oilers and the Sabres agree to a deal to exchange Jack Eichel for Connor McDavid. I know, I know. But the teams want the salary evened out in the process. So both teams leave those players exposed, and Seattle drafts them. The next day the Kraken trade those players to their new teams, retaining $2 million a year on Eichel and $4.5 million a year on McDavid. The Kraken check two contracts off the required 20, and a whopping $22.5 million off the minimum $48.9 million they are required to spend. They have $6.5 million in cap committed for the next 5 years, but they still have all of their roster spots available for next year.
And finally — and I’ll admit, we’re getting into an area of the rules that hasn’t been formally explored — the Kraken can, in theory, draft a player from Team A and trade that same player back to Team A after the draft. Furthermore, that trade can involve retained salary from the Kraken side. So for instance, Seattle could select Anze Kopitar from Los Angeles, then trade him back to LA with 50% of his salary retained in exchange for a draft pick. And just like the previous example, it helps the Kraken to get over the $48.9 million draft minimum, but frees up a contract and roster spot for the Kraken to use in free agency.
As far as we have been able to determine, this is legal both with respect to the draft rules and the portion of the CBA that governs retained salary transactions. I expect such a transaction would raise eyebrows at the NHL head office, but ultimately it is our opinion that such a transaction would be approved.
The Kraken’s biggest asset this upcoming season is their salary cap room. They have $0 in contracts on the books at the moment, and they can “weaponize” that cap space in creative ways like we’ve just outlined. There are a number of teams who are in “cap hell” and will be looking for relief, and the Kraken can use techniques like these to provide that — for the right price. This is going to be the key to hacking the draft. And so, off we go!
The goal of this exercise is to draft a team that comes as close as possible to the $48.9 million cap “floor” established for the expansion draft. Our secondary goal is to acquire as many players as possible that have immediate trade value, including players who could, by prior arrangement, be traded back to the team from which they were drafted. And finally, we want to select as few players under contract as possible, preferably just the minimum 20. That way if our trade plans do not work out as well as we had hoped, we’re not burying 10 guys in the minors who don’t belong there.
The first part of this process will be having talks with every team in the league, in order to find out who off the list of exposed players they would be interested in acquiring. A lot of the same names will likely pop up, and so we’ll make sure to draft those players and then ship them off to wherever gets us the most return. But there are a couple of other deals we will be making with specific clubs.
First, we’ll ask Dallas if they want Joe Pavelski back at half the price. We select him, retain half his salary, and trade him back to the Stars. All it will cost them is a second round pick. I expect they will likely jump at the chance to not lose a player and save $3.5 million in cap space. And let’s face it: if Dallas isn’t interested, I expect roughly half the league would have interest in acquiring Joe Pavelski on a one-year deal at $3.5 million. This past season he racked up 24 goals, 50 points, and a plus-22 in just 55 games, so I don’t expect that moving him will be a problem.
Next, we’ll have a heart-to-heart with Tampa Bay. Tell them we’re taking Ryan McDonagh, and in exchange they’re giving us Alex Killorn for nothing. By doing so the Lightning will clear over $11 million in cap space — enough to make room for Nikita Kucherov to return to the lineup without moving another player — and the Kraken get a top six forward and our first team captain. And no, we don’t want Tyler Johnson.
Finally, we’re drafting any goaltender worth a farthing and moving them out the door to the highest bidder. Goaltenders have already proven to be the hottest commodity in the free agent and trade markets, so we’re going to leverage that as far as it can possibly go. Any goaltender we know we can move to a new home, or ship back to his old home with some retained salary in exchange for a sweetener, we’re drafting him.
How We Do It
The requirements are: $48.9 million spent; 20 players under contract for next season or beyond; and at least 14 forwards, 9 defensemen, and 3 goaltenders. We’re approaching this as if there are no side deals in place with any club; we are just drafting one player from each team.
First up are the throw-aways — players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this August, and we will decline to offer them a contract. Those players are forwards Brett Seney (NJD) and Travis Boyd (VAN), and defensemen Nikita Nesterov (CGY) and Mark Alt (LAK). The only requirements we have met here are 2 forwards and 2 defensemen against our required minimums; no contracts, and no salary.
Next are restricted free agents who are in need of new deals. We will either be keeping these players or trading their rights, depending on what the trade market looks like for each player. They are: forwards David Kampf (CHI), Logan Brown (OTT), and Alex True (SJS); defensemen Jake Bean (CAR) and Travis Dermott (TOR); and goaltender Adin Hill (ARI). Again, no contracts or salary, but we check off some positional minimums.
Next are the salaried players who are under contract for at least one year. There are a lot of these, and this is where we do the bulk of the work. Up front we have Tage Thompson (BUF), Valeri Nichushkin (COL), Kyle Turris (EDM), Mason Marchment (FLA), Matt Martin (NYI), Colin Blackwell (NYR), and Mason Appleton (WPG) — 7 forwards, bringing our total to 12.
To the blueline corps we add Kevin Shattenkirk (ANA), Jeremy Lauzon (BOS), Scott Harrington (CLB), Troy Stecher (DET), and Robert Bortuzzo (STL) — 5 defensemen, bringing us up to the required total of 9. And in goal we select Cam Talbot (MIN), Jake Allen (MTL), Connor Ingram (NSH), Casey DeSmith (PIT), and Vitek Vanecek (WSH) — 5 netminders, bringing us to 6 total and exceeding the required 3. For those following along at home, that’s a total of 17 players under contract.
Which brings us to our whales, the big contracts that we are either going to have to eat or trade away with retained salary. Fortunately all 3 of these guys are still performing well, and so if they end up on the roster it won’t hurt the club. They are right wing Joe Pavelski (DAL), left wing James Van Riemsdyk (PHI), and defenseman Ryan McDonagh (TBL). Just those three players get us 40% of the way to our minimum salary commitment, with over $20 million in combined cap hit between them.
That’s it! We have drafted 14 forwards, 10 defensemen, and 6 goalies, and 20 of those players are under contract for next year. 12 contracts are a single year, meaning the Kraken have abundant flexibility next off-season; six more are 2-year deals, one 3-year deal, and just a single contract stretching more than 3 years. Now for the big question: how did we do on salary?
Minimum required spending: $48,900,000.00
Our total: $48,925,000.00
We’re over by a mere 25 grand, or 0.05% of the required minimum. Not bad. (Editor’s note: Since this was first written Toronto signed defenseman Travis Dermott to a 2-year, $1.5 million AAV contract. That move has boosted the total cap spend by a similar amount, and also increases the number of players under contract to 21.)
We conducted this exercise on the most handy web site in hockey, CapFriendly.com, and our results can be seen here. This is a 100% compliant draft, and if the selections from the Kraken were exactly as they are shown above, Seattle would have met the minimum requirements to the letter.
If Seattle had to survive with those players, the 20 guys under contract for next year plus re-signed restricted free agents, we’d have a decent team. There would be some scoring deficiencies, and we’d really have one top pairing and two bottom pairings on defense, but we’d field a team. We’d have to find a way to platoon 5 goalies, and understand that a few would be lost on the waiver wire when we tried to send them to the minors. But that scenario is not realistic.
What is realistic is the following: at minimum, 8 and maybe even as many as 12 of these guys — signed or not — are highly marketable assets. The Kraken could easily move Nichushkin, Appleton, Brown, True, and Marchment for either picks or packaged with other assets to acquire a top-six forward; defensemen Dermott, Bean, and Lauzon would find buyers in a minute; and it would be a simple thing to find homes for goaltenders Talbot, DeSmith, and Hill.
But even if that isn’t possible — even if the Kraken do move out the free agents but can’t find anyone to take even a dime of salary — just barely squeaking over the expansion draft minimum salary requirements means Seattle has $32.4 million in cap space to play with during free agency. Trade away a few of the players mentioned in the previous paragraph, and all of a sudden the Kraken have enough cap room to be in on every free agent worth signing.
From where I’m sitting, the best value players available on the free agent market are centers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Phillip Danault, winger Brandon Saad, and defensemen Tyson Barrie and Dougie Hamilton. With the money the Kraken have left they can be the highest bidder on all five of these guys and still have room to spare. All are 29 years old or younger, all have proven track records, and all will be thrilled to have 4- to 6-year deals offered to them — something the Kraken can do, but most teams can’t.
In closing, we’ll say that this wasn’t just an academic exercise. Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis has already been having discussions with existing teams. Recently one of the major media outlets reported that GM’s for those clubs have voiced the opinion that, based on the discussions they have had with Francis, they believe the Kraken might do something resembling what we have done here. When you think about the challenges the expansion draft presents to the new franchise, the limitations it reveals about the way this artificial playing field was constructed, and the defensive posture teams have taken in the wake of the 2017 expansion draft blood bath, it actually might be the smartest thing to do.
So while this was an entertaining challenge, it’s entirely possible that this actually occurs. It won’t be the same players from the same teams, but if they’re looking to hack the draft, we’ve just shown that it’s very possible, and this is one of the ways the Kraken could do it.