Sorry, Seattle. We’ll have to mark the expansion draft report card as an ‘Incomplete.’
After two-plus years of speculation on whether the NHL’s 32nd franchise would attempt to walk in the Vegas Golden Knights’ immediately successful footsteps…Wednesday didn’t yield a definitive answer. The grade we give the Kraken depends on whether their 2021-22 roster construction is anywhere close to done.
As player names began leaking Wednesday morning, most courtesy of Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli, it appeared the NHL’s 32nd franchise was drafting a team built to compete for a playoff spot immediately. In what shapes up to be the NHL’s softest division in 2021-22, why not? The apparent win-now queues came from Seattle’s decisions on defense. In handing a four-year, $16-million contract to rugged right-handed UFA defenseman Adam Larsson and a five-year, $23-million pact to towering UFA blueliner Jamie Oleksiak, the Kraken were committing not just significant money but also significant term. Other big names joining them on defense included promising puck-mover Vince Dunn, who never escaped sheltered minutes on the St. Louis Blues and wasn’t going to pass Torey Krug on the depth chart, and longtime Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano, whom they exposed for his walk year rather than cough up the younger Chris Tanev.
Also supporting the idea that Seattle has interest in competing immediately in the Pacific: in adding center Yanni Gourde and wingers Jordan Eberle, Joonas Donskoi and Brandon Tanev, GM Ron Francis signed up for AAVs of $5.17 million, $5.5 million, $3.9 million and $3.5 million with remaining terms of four, three, two and four years.
“When I found out, with the situation of having a few years left, I knew they were serious about me being here for a while,” Eberle said. “That’s exciting. Any time you feel wanted to start a franchise with, that excites me. So I want to be a guy that’s here for a while and help this team win.”
But that was it in terms of splashy decisions for the Kraken on Day 1. No Carey Price. No Vladimir Tarasenko. No James van Riemsdyk. No Max Domi. The rest of the selections ranged from buy-lows on former prospects to cost-efficient upside plays in net to checking forwards and, most commonly, back-end roster fillers that almost appeared to be punts to save cap space. And there were no side deals announced Wednesday, no draft capital or prospects acquired in exchange for the Kraken selecting player X or Y from a given NHL team. Taking on Tanev’s chunky contract, for instance, was not part of any “don’t take this guy” deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, whereas the Golden Knights made several moves like that on expansion-draft night in 2017. They acquired Shea Theodore as a “thank you” from the Anaheim Ducks for selecting Clayton Stoner over Sami Vatanen, for instance.
As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Hockey News Wednesday night, any trades Seattle made that included “expansion draft considerations” would’ve had to be announced by the 10:00 a.m. submission deadline Wednesday morning. The Kraken, then, didn’t secure any assets or picks as a result of helping teams out with their expansion selections.
“This was going to be so much different than what Vegas went through,” Francis said. “There hadn’t been an expansion draft in 17 years. Vegas did a good job taking advantage of the rules and everyone’s lack of experience in that environment. But the minute that one was done, they knew we were coming in, and they had a lot more time to prepare for us…The last time, GMs were more willing to overpay to protect certain assets. This time they learned from that, and they weren’t willing to make mistakes that they made last time.”
That doesn’t mean Seattle has no trades up its sleeve, however. The league-wide trade freeze lifts at 1:00 p.m. Thursday, after which, per Daly, the Kraken are free to announce any trades that are technically independent of the expansion draft. So they can execute the equivalent of Vegas picking Marc Methot and trading him to the Dallas Stars several days after the expansion draft in 2017. That said, while things can still change between now and when the freeze lifts, Francis tempered expectations about any flurry of moves, claiming there were “probably a lot less than you guys think it might be.”
He did suggest the Kraken aren’t finished wading into the UFA market. Based on which Seattle picks might be expected to play at the NHL level, capfriendly.com projects the team to have more than $28 million in cap space, and just because a player didn’t sign with them in the early window doesn’t mean the Kraken can’t be big bidders when league-wide free agency begins July 28. For bigger names like Gabriel Landeskog, for instance, it’s probably better business to shop around with multiple teams. It doesn’t mean Seattle won’t harpoon any more big-ticket UFAs.
After night 1, though? We can’t confirm what deals if any the Kraken have cooking. They made no expansion-draft trades, and we don’t know what other moves they’ll announce Thursday. The project is thus incomplete, but Wednesday turned out to be a relatively conservative start.
In goal, Seattle resisted the temptation to snag the Moby Dick option in superstar Price and instead are taking a chance on fairly cheap stoppers with high ceilings. Chris Driedger, signed from the Florida Panthers as a UFA for three years at a $3.5-million AAV, has a .929 career save percentage across his 38 appearances. Vitek Vanecek filled in admirably for Washington Capitals battery mate Ilya Samsonov during some COVID scares and at least flashed enough potential to qualify as serious competition for Driedger. They form a relatively inexperienced tandem, but both have shown the ability to be viable NHL starters, and Driedger relishes the competition.
“When we came to terms, I had no clue who my goalie partner would be, so I’m just betting on myself in this situation,” Driedger said. “In the NHL, there’s going to be competition wherever you go. I’m used to that. I try not to focus as much on that. I’m confident in my game.”
The Golden Knights flourished partially because they bought low on some untapped talents, and the Kraken might be trying to do the same. Forwards such as Colin Blackwell and Mason Appleton are late bloomers who hinted at upside when given larger opportunities this past season. Same goes for blueliner Haydn Fleury. So perhaps the Kraken are hunting for their own William Karlssons and Nate Schmidts.
The similarities to the Golden Knights’ expansion draft end there, however. It was a borderline timid start for the Kraken, but they at least didn’t saddle themselves with much if any dead money, so they have the flexibility to surprise with some high-profile moves in the days and weeks to come.
2021 Expansion Draft Picks, in order:
Boston Bruins – Jeremy Lauzon, D
Buffalo Sabres – Will Borgen, D
Detroit Red Wings – Dennis Cholowski, D
Florida Panthers – Chris Driedger, G
Montreal Canadiens – Cale Fleury, D
Ottawa Senators – Joey Daccord, G
Tampa Bay Lightning – Yanni Gourde, C
Toronto Maple Leafs – Jared McCann, LW
Carolina Hurricanes – Morgan Geekie, C
Columbus Blue Jackets – Gavin Bayreuther, D
New Jersey Devils – Nathan Bastian, RW
New York Islanders – Jordan Eberle, RW
New York Rangers – Colin Blackwell, RW
Philadelphia Flyers – Carsen Twarynski, LW
Pittsburgh Penguins – Brandon Tanev, LW
Washington Capitals – Vitek Vanecek, G
Arizona Coyotes – Tyler Pitlick, RW
Chicago Blackhawks – John Quenneville, C
Colorado Avalanche – Joonas Donskoi, RW
Dallas Stars – Jamie Oleksiak, D
Minnesota Wild – Carson Soucy, D
Nashville Predators – Calle Jarnkrok, LW
St. Louis Blues – Vince Dunn, D
Winnipeg Jets – Mason Appleton, RW
Anaheim Ducks – Haydn Fleury, D
Calgary Flames – Mark Giordano, D
Edmonton Oilers – Adam Larsson, D
Los Angeles Kings – Kurtis MacDermid, D
San José Sharks – Alexander True, C
Vancouver Canucks – Kole Lind, RW