With this off-season boasting the biggest free agent class in the history of the league, Seattle Kraken fans expected GM Ron Francis and his $30 million in available cap space to be active in the free agent market in a big way. And while some more prominent names did land with other teams, Francis arguably made the move that would have the biggest impact on his team’s fortunes in the upcoming season.
The free agent signing period is still active, though the list is dwindling. As of this writing the Kraken have brought in five new faces to join the inaugural roster — three forwards, one defenseman, and a goaltender. Today we’re going to take a brief look at all 5, and discuss who else the Kraken might be thinking about signing.
Scoring By Committee
General Managers build teams in different ways. One philosophy is to build a team around a core of superstar players, and fill in the gaps behind them. Chicago built its championship teams around Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. That paid off with 3 Stanley Cups in 6 years. But it can fail, too — I would refer you to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ championship drought, despite having John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander in the top six.
The Kraken seem to be shaping up in a different way. The philosophy that appears to be taking hold is that no player, or players, will be the stars around which the club will build a team. Instead, the *team* is the star, and every player has a role on it. This has a couple of benefits, the most obvious being salary cap management — if you don’t have star players, you don’t have to pay star player salaries.
But the other benefit is that it makes it difficult for other teams to neutralize you. Take the Maple Leafs: teams quickly figured out that if you kept Marner and Matthews off the scoresheet, the rest would take care of itself. They were right, hence the Leafs’ string of first-round playoff exits continues to this day. But if you’re trying to neutralize a team with no stars, where every player contributes every night, who do you focus on? Additionally, if a player is out with an injury, his absence does not impact the team as negatively as if it were Auston Matthews.
So given that the Kraken are taking a more balanced approach to assembling a team, it makes it easier to understand why Seattle pursued the forwards they signed during free agency. There will be no superstars, they didn’t pursue a 50-goal scorer; the Kraken will get their scoring by committee, and that’s on purpose.
LW Jaden Schwartz, 5 years, $5.5 million AAV. If you’re looking for the prototypical Kraken forward, look no further. Schwartz was a first-round selection by the St. Louis Blues in 2010, and in 560 NHL games has put up 385 points with a combined plus-74 rating. He’s coming off a down year following the sudden death of his father in late 2020, compounding the sorrow for a player who lost his older sister at age 22 to leukemia. Schwartz is a net-front nuisance, hard-working forechecker, and has excellent possession numbers (get used to hearing that, it’s the single common thread that ties every single player on the roster together). Schwartz has talked about being eager to get a “fresh start” in Seattle, and he’s the odds-on favorite to take the left side on the Kraken’s top line come October.
C Alexander Wennberg, 3 years, $4.5 million AAV. The adjective that’s most appropriate for this play-making center is “overlooked” — he is not a highlight-reel forward, but in typical Swedish fashion, gets the job done well every night. Wennberg is another first-round pick, and in 471 NHL games he has 230 points — 3/4 of them assists. He is a strong skater and passer, has good size, and strong possession numbers (there’s that phrase again), though his face-off win percentage is below average. It’s likely he will start the year as the pivot between the aforementioned Schwartz and Jordan Eberle, though it’s expected his regular role will be centering the 2nd line once Yanni Gourde returns to action sometime on or about November.
C/LW Marcus Johansson, 1 year, $1.5 million AAV. This is one of those risk/reward signings for Seattle. Johansson had a terrific career while playing for the Washington Capitals, the team that drafted him in the (you guessed it) first round. And by terrific I mean putting up 58 points and a plus-25 during 2016-17 while playing every game on the schedule. But in the years after being traded to the Devils his production dropped off a cliff, though he remained strong with (mmmm-hmmm) possession numbers. Seattle is hoping that a short-term, prove-it deal in some new surroundings will inspire Johansson to return to his earlier form. To give him the best chance to accomplish that, my thought is that he needs time in the top-six, and on the left wing — and absolutely not taking face-offs. We’ll see if that is how head coach Dave Hakstol decides to use him once the dust has settled from training camp.
Depth On Defense
The Kraken ended the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft with more defensemen than they could carry on the regular season roster, and following some RFA signings every one of those 8 guys is now under contract. Some moves will need to be made before the regular season opens, but Ron Francis is also thinking about contingencies for his defensive corps.
RD Connor Carrick, 1 year, $800,000 AAV. This gritty and quick blueliner comes to the Kraken with over 240 games of NHL experience with the Capitals, Leafs, Stars, and Devils. He is a shot blocker and not afraid to lower the boom on opponents, and generally plays a conservative style. He is the prototypical “7th defenseman” — on the roster, but out of the lineup — and with an already crowded blue line he is likely to start the season in the AHL. But his presence adds veteran depth upon which the team can call when injuries inevitably start to sideline some of the roster regulars.
Our Number One
During the expansion draft Ron Francis surprised everyone with the signing of Florida Panthers’ backup goalie Chris Driedger to a contract that exceeded both his experience and performance. It was assumed that Francis had Driedger penciled in as the starter for the Kraken, with Vitek Vanecek taking the backup role. While that duo looked good from a statistics standpoint, their lack of experience — the two netminders combined for just 75 NHL games — made fans uneasy. Fortunately fate would intervene, and the Kraken would get a true number one goalie to start the year.
G Philipp Grubauer, 6 years, $5.9 million AAV. It was expected that the Colorado Avalanche would come to terms with their star goalie before free agency opened, and even as the deadline passed and players started signing contracts it looked as though Grubauer would be returning to Denver. But when Ron Francis realized that the Avs starter was fair game, the Kraken swooped in and inked him to a six-year deal. Grubauer was among the leaders league-wide last season, with a 30-9-1 record, 7 shutouts (!!!), a 1.95 GAA and .922 save percentage. He is now the de facto #1 goalie for the Kraken, with Driedger in the “1-B” role, and Vanecek traded back to Washington. Grubauer by himself makes the Kraken into a playoff contender, and it could be argued that this signing will have the most impact of any player this free agent signing period.
Not Done Yet
Despite the flurry of activity from Ron Francis and his scouting staff, there is still work to do. The Kraken have just a single player who tips the needle above 50% at the face-off dot — and just barely, at that — and plainly that has to be remedied. Additionally, the team is without a #1 center, and even if Yanni Gourde is expected to assume that role he is out until at least November following shoulder surgery. And finally, while the defensive capabilities of our blue line corps are not in doubt, the Kraken could use a boost to the offensive firepower on the back end.
The best solution would be to get a #1 center who is also a face-off specialist, but those are hard to come by. There were none in the free agent market once Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog decided to stay put, and those teams who have players that fall into this category tend to hold on to them.
Complicating matters is youngster Matty Beniers, the #2 overall pick for the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. He projects as a #1 center, but is unlikely to make the team this fall, and will need time to adjust to the NHL game and schedule. Chances are much better that he is ready to assume the 1C role in 1-2 years — so, for this season, we need a #1 center who wins 55% of his face-offs and is on a short-term contract, and can switch to the wing if Gourde is a better option up the middle. Easy, right?
Such players do exist — Sean Couturier (PHI), Vincent Trocheck (CAR), and Tomas Hertl (SJS) are the most prominent candidates given our criteria. But whether these teams are willing to part with such players, and what they would want in return, that becomes the difficult part.
I’m not optimistic that one of these three or somebody similarly talented will ultimately land on the Kraken roster before puck drop in October. But it’s possible that Seattle can acquire either a #1 center or a face-off specialist via the trade market before the season commences. Seattle still has players to give in trade, and just a hair under $10 million in cap space for the upcoming year. We shall see what wizardry Ron Francis can conjure.