Fair or not, the Seattle Kraken will inevitably draw comparisons to the NHL expansion team that came before them, the Vegas Golden Knights. Those Knights cast a long shadow, having gone all the way to the Stanley Cup final in their maiden season, but Vegas also made a ton of savvy early moves that put the organization on the right path.
Kraken GM Ron Francis now faces the challenge of building his franchise during a most extraordinary season in the hockey world, one that features a smaller sample size of NHL and AHL games to scout, not to mention a scarcity of junior games to bird-dog. That’s tough, heading into the all-important 2021 amateur draft.
“We’ve done a lot of homework, basically through video,” Francis said. “It’s going to be an extremely challenging draft for sure. There’s going to be players, especially from the OHL, who may not have played a game since last March, so you’re watching on video. There’s guys from that league playing in Europe and you have to evaluate what that level of competition is and how they stack up. Everyone’s in the same boat, but we don’t have the database that other teams have.”
Heck, Francis hasn’t even met all his hires in person yet due to the pandemic, but the veteran hockey exec and Hall of Fame player isn’t making any excuses: the plan, as always, is to build Seattle into the best team possible both short-term and long-term.
When it comes to the amateur draft, we’ve seen a great template from Vegas: thanks to side deals revolving around the expansion draft, Golden Knights GM George McPhee and his scouts made 12 selections in seven rounds back in 2017. Three of those picks were first-rounders and all of them (Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom) plus second-rounder Nic Hague have already played in the NHL, though Suzuki and Brannstrom are doing so in different jerseys since they were eventually traded for the likes of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone.
Vegas also had an extra pick in the two drafts after that, setting up a prospect pipeline quickly and efficiently. It’s a move that Francis agrees with.
“My philosophy over time has been that the more darts you get to throw at the board, the better chance you have for success,” he said. “We’re open to anything and everything as we build this team, from draft picks to players to RFAs left unprotected by teams, to UFAs we’re looking to sign.”
The Kraken will also be on the hunt for free agents from major junior and Europe, though they missed out on the gems of this year’s NCAA free agent class. That was mostly out of Seattle’s hands, however: as Francis pointed out, many college free agents sign with a team that plays them in an NHL game right away, allowing them to burn a year of the contract. With no games to play, the Kraken obviously couldn’t offer that this year.
Seattle actually can’t sign anyone yet anyways, because the franchise still needs to submit its final payment to the league, but it sounds like that is coming very soon. In the meantime, Francis and crew are trying to navigate the very-difficult amateur scouting world right now.
“I’ve been thoroughly involved, but it’s tough to get to games,” Francis said. “You can’t go to Canada because you have to quarantine for two weeks.”
That night, Francis had planned on watching some live WHL action in his own backyard, as the Seattle Thunderbirds were taking on the Tri-City Americans. And though two prominent T-Birds had already left for Canada’ world under-18 camp (left winger Conner Roulette and Thomas Milic), it’s actually an intriguing year for 2021 prospects in Seattle: big left winger Lucas Ciona and darkhorse defensemen Jeremy Hanzel and Luke Bateman all hold intrigue, joining Milic and potential first-rounder Roulette. Personally, I think it would be pretty cool if the Kraken grabbed at least one member of the T-Birds in the draft, though I recognize that everything is dependent on situation.
At the least, Francis’ American locale will allow for easy access to the aforementioned world under-18s, which take place in Texas at the end of the month. This year’s tourney will be more crucial than ever – and it’s already one of the most important dates on the scouting calendar.
In general, the pandemic has just made scouting that much harder than usual, especially because so much can happen to a kid as a teenage prospect.
“I know for myself, I grew so much between 17 and 18; I changed dramatically,” Francis said. “A lot of these kids will do that so you’d like to see them, not only physically, but where they are on the ice. We’re not going to have that opportunity, so it’s going to be a challenge. I was talking to some other GMs and they said ‘we might get a better player in the fourth round than in the first or second’ based on those unfortunate circumstances. But it is what it is and we’ll do everything we can to get it as right as possible.”
Once Seattle does have prospects, some of them will need to play in the AHL and the Kraken won’t have their own affiliate until 2022-23 when Palm Springs takes to the ice. In the interim, Francis said he hopes to have Seattle’s prospects (he estimated about 10 players) all on one team, which they would naturally be sharing with another NHL franchise.
It’s all coming fast and it’s all very exciting. With Francis at the helm and a solid-looking crew of scouts hired to find him talent, Seattle appears to be in good shape for what will be a monumental summer for the Kraken.