The NHL’s free agent signing period commenced at noon on Wednesday. The Kraken figured to be one of the busiest teams with over $30-million in cap space available to general manager Ron Francis and his cadre of analytical front-office mavens.
With the Kraken electing to build a respectable defense corps through the expansion process, their forward depth was starkly sparse and in dire need of an injection of scoring talent. The management group surveyed their competition in the Pacific division and believed a playoff spot is well within their grasp, with the Kraken likely hoping a Golden Knights-like inaugural season is in the cards.
With that in mind, here are my grades for each of the Kraken’s main free agent signings.
Jaden Schwartz, LW – 5 year deal at $5.5 million per year
While the Kraken received plaudits for assembling a strong group on the back-end and in goal, questions remain about the quality of their depth upfront. In response, Seattle bolstered their attacking options with a former Stanley Cup champion who leaves the Blues organization with the 4th most playoff goals in franchise history and 5th most points in post-season play.
Schwartz tallied 21 points in 40 games this past season, missing 16 games while recovering from a lower-body injury. His last three seasons saw him score 41 goals and 114 points over 180 regular season games, a 20-goal, 50-point-pace.
The winger is one of the league’s premier dual threats on offense, creating an equally high number of shots coming off the rush and the forecheck. He recorded the 2nd most rebound chances, controlled offensive zone entries, and passes leading to shots for his teammates on the Blues. His tactical versatility was a key component of St. Louis’ past success.
Although Schwartz will provide great value in the short term, the long-term viability of his contract is questionable. As his deal takes him through his age 29-34 seasons and has never completed a full 82-game season, Schwartz has been signed at what will likely be the end of his athletic peak. This carries with it the risk of an ugly physical decline if the Kraken does not immediately contend for a championship.
Philip Grubauer, G – 6 year deal at $5.9 million per year
This signing was the most surprising of the day due to Seattle’s expansion draft exploits. They had already selected and extended Florida’s Chris Driedger, who was expected to be the de-facto starter come the fall.
Instead, the Kraken doubled down on goaltending and snatched a Vezina Trophy nominee from the Presidents’ Trophy winners Colorado Avalanche, signing the 29-year-old Grubauer to a six-year deal worth nearly $6 million per season.
Since joining the Avalanche ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, the German has consistently been one of the league’s best netminders while backstopping a legitimate Cup contender. Grubauer’s .918 save percentage in the regular season ranks 16th among goalies with at least 1000 minutes played, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Further, his GSAA (goals saved above average) per 60 minutes output, which quantifies how many goals a goalie prevents compared to the average net-minder, has him firmly in 9th in the same three-season timeframe.
Interestingly, Driedger ranks above him in each category, albeit in a drastically reduced sample size. Unlike Driedger, Grubauer can boast a measure of playoff success, with his save percentage rising to .920 in post-season action since 2018 (6th in the NHL) and indicates his ability to elevate his performance in high-leverage situations.
Partnering Grubauer with Driedger will give the Kraken a formidable tandem in the crease, and they will do well to mask any of the roster’s defensive deficiencies. But, questions should be asked about whether that was the most efficient use of their cap space after leaving the expansion draft with an uninspiring group of forwards.
Alex Wennberg, C – 3 year deal at $4.5 million per year
As I’ve harped on numerous times already, Seattle will have a hard time scoring consistently next season due to their lack of finishing talent. In turn, the Kraken bolstered their center depth by signing Wennberg to a contract worth nearly $5 million over the next three years.
After a breakout season in 2016-17 in which Wennberg scored 59 points in 80 games for the Blue Jackets, his play gradually declined, and he was shipped off to the Florida Panthers. However, he rebounded to the tune of 29 points in 56 games while being sheltered in an offensive third-line role behind the Panthers’ top two centers in Alex Barkov and Vincent Trochek.
Wennberg’s primary source of value is generated through his incisive play-making and ability to transition the puck into his opponent’s defensive zone. In particular, micro-stat data shows that Wennberg ranks above the league average in the rate at which he completes passes that lead directly to a scoring chance and from high-danger areas such as behind the net and across the slot.
He also won’t hurt you defensively, as he hovers around break-even in most shot-share and chance quality metrics, but it would be wise not to expect considerable defensive impact.
While Wennberg could be useful at the right price and if deployed in a manner that shields him from the most difficult competition, neither his contract nor Seattle’s depth chart suggest that that will be the case.
In isolation, the Kraken signed several excellent players to fairly reasonable contracts, no mean feat considering the hysteria of the annual free agency bonanza.
However, there is a worrying disconnect between the Kraken’s expansion draft strategy (not making side deals for draft picks) and inking sizeable free agent deals for short-term prosperity.
The Pacific division is weak enough that Seattle could easily sneak into a playoff spot. Still, they have bet on immediate success over accumulating draft capital by alleviating other franchises’ of their contractual headaches, which means their future success is not guaranteed.
It’s not the path I would’ve chosen, but the fans deserve a competitive roster. They’ve got one.