Putting aside the usually diminished expectations that accompany an expansion franchise, the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural NHL season has been an unmitigated disaster. The organization’s executive group – headed by general manager Ron Francis – struck out on a number of offseason moves by misjudging the Kraken’s competitive timeline. Although he prioritized short-term success in constructing the team’s strategy for the expansion draft and free agency, the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline represents a second chance to alter their trajectory. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
Kraken Roster Loaded with Pending Free Agents
One look at the Kraken’s salary cap situation tells us what to expect from Francis and company come the March 21st deadline. Of the players who have featured regularly this season, 11 are set to become Restricted (RFA) or Unrestricted (UFA) free agents this summer. Jared McCann (RFA) and captain Mark Giordano (UFA) are the most significant of that group, and it’s likely that at least one is no longer a member of the Kraken once the 2022-23 season begins. McCann remains under team control (Seattle retains the right to match an offer sheet), suggesting that his offensive chops should stay Kraken property past the deadline.
Other players such as Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Johansson, and Carson Soucy (one year left on his deal) should garner interest from contenders and fringe playoff teams, and Francis would do well to leverage the potential for a bidding war on attractive utility pieces.
Even if Francis prefers to keep several of his expiring veterans in tow, nothing prohibits him from selling them off at the deadline and bringing them back into the fold in free agency. If it comes to pass that a reunion is not in the cards, versatile veterans looking for cheap prove-it deals are a dime a dozen on the open market. With the 2021-22 season essentially a write-off at this point, Francis shouldn’t overthink his deadline blueprint.
Kraken Draft Pick Cupboard Is (Relatively) Empty
So why should Francis emphasize stockpiling as many draft picks as possible at the deadline? The Kraken only own three picks over the next two drafts that aren’t their own, and two are from the fourth round. If the NHL’s draft lottery plays out in their favor, they could add presumed first-overall pick Shane Wright to form a formidable one-two punch down the middle with current top prospect Matty Beniers.
Still, one would hope that a team boasting one of the shallowest prospect pools in the NHL is trying to collect as many lottery tickets as possible in the hopes of hitting the jackpot with a late-round pick. It doesn’t bode well for future success that the team as currently constructed is struggling mightily without the promise of talented youth coming up the pipeline. For reference, the two teams below them in the overall standings (the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes) can look forward to a more appetizing collection of picks over the next two drafts.
Montreal owns six picks in the first three rounds of the 2022 Draft, while the Coyotes are sitting on a goldmine with seven in the first two rounds this summer. Both clubs have a number of enticing trade pieces to dangle in front of contenders, and those already attractive counts are sure to skyrocket as a result.
Given the excitement surrounding the 2023 draft class, the Kraken should direct their attention to trying to accrue as many picks for next year’s iteration. Other teams will be wary of potentially imploding ahead of such a momentous event, but the depth of the class means that Seattle can’t go wrong even if they fail to secure first-round picks in 2023. I think the Kraken could stomach another year of incompetence for the chance to select one of Conor Bedard or Matvei Michkov, don’t you?
Trade Deadline Is Opportunity to Right Expansion Draft Wrongs
Their expansion cousins in the Vegas Golden Knights leveraged their cap space to collect assets in return for taking on bad contracts, but the Kraken didn’t follow suit in their own expansion draft. Whether it took the form of haggling with other teams to pick certain players in exchange for picks or prospects or to flip valuable players (Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, and James van Riemsdyk come to mind) to interested parties with salary retained, the Kraken refrained from going down that path. Instead, they selected young players with limited upside (Carsen Twarynski) or misread the market to the point where they obtained a lesser return than could have been gleaned elsewhere (Vitek Vanacek).
It’s fair to say that other organizations may have learned their lesson from the Golden Knights debacle, but Francis’ desire to immediately ice a competitive roster has undoubtedly hamstrung the Kraken in trying to change course. His exuberance in the free agent market and with unsigned expansion selections led to lengthy deals being inked without much foresight. Jaden Schwartz – while a capable two-way forward – turns 30 this summer and has never had a clean bill of health. Philipp Grubauer’s implosion – while unexpected – illustrates the perils that come with evaluating goalies and the big German is signed through his age-35 season.
It’s understandable that the franchise hoped to avoid the abysmal starts which shadowed the early years of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers, for example, but their roster is nothing more than a middling jumble of solid contributors being miscast in leading roles. Moving on from some of the more costly decisions is prudent, but it remains to be seen if Francis is willing to bite the bullet on some of his most significant moves so early on in his tenure.
Which Path Does Francis Take?
Fortunately for the former head honcho of the Carolina Hurricanes, he’s been given some leeway as the franchise navigates the early days of its existence. The bigger question is whether he’s learned his lesson and if he’s the one to lead Seattle to the promised land. The organization stumbled through the expansion process and failed to use its leverage to stock up on draft capital and prospects. Whichever path Francis ends up going down is still in the air, but how he approaches the trade deadline should offer onlookers some clarity on how he views the team relative to the rest of the league. One thing’s for certain, exciting times are ahead for the Kraken faithful.