I recently highlighted five of the Seattle Kraken’s biggest decisions regarding their upcoming slate of pending unrestricted (UFA) and restricted (RFA) free agents. With notable names at all three positions, the Kraken’s management group has its work cut out for them in the lead-up to and during the start of 2023 NHL Free Agency (July 1).
According to CapFriendly, the Kraken are projected to have around $15-20 million in cap space while having all their key contributors signed through at least next season, save for Vince Dunn and Daniel Sprong.
Assuming the pair eventually accounts for nearly half of that space, that leaves the team with enough room to take another big swing in free agency. Also, they can try to make a series of cheap, low-risk gambles that have defined much of their early success as a newly-minted franchise.
With that context in mind, let’s dive into a few names that could make sense for the Kraken at a reasonable price point while providing surplus value on historically inefficient free agent contracts.
Target #1: Evan Rodrigues, Colorado Avalanche
2022-23 Statistics: 69 Games Played (GP) – 16 Goals (G) – 23 Assists (A) – 39 Points (PTS) – 17:51 Average Time on Ice (ATOI)
The first free agent target is 29-year-old utility forward Evan Rodrigues, who rebuilt his reputation and market value over the past three seasons split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche were in dire straits to start the 2022-23 season, with several key regulars out with injuries. In stepped Rodrigues on a one-year, $2 million contract on the heels of a 43-point season with the Penguins and produced at a slightly higher per-game rate to help buoy the Avalanche’s forward group.
Rodrigues showed an ability to regularly get into good shooting positions and test opposing goaltenders, leading all Avalanche forwards in shots off high-danger passes (from behind the net or across the slot). Yanni Gourde and Sprong are the Kraken’s two best passers, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, grading out well above average leaguewide.
Combining with one of those forwards (or another unnamed acquisition) would be the best use of his skill set, and his puck-carrying and neutral-zone transition fit within the Kraken’s pre-existing structure.
Given his production and versatility, it wouldn’t be challenging to see Rodrigues command double his previous annual average value (AAV) on a multi-year offer. Still, whether he can repeat his recent performances into his 30s while providing value commensurate with a significant raise is the question and one the Kraken must answer before committing to such a deal.
Target #2: Alexander Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs
2022-23 Statistics: 82 GP – 10 G – 22 A – 32 PTS – 14:37 ATOI
The second target is another utility forward in Alexander Kerfoot of the Toronto Maple Leafs, set to turn 29 later this summer. Kerfoot’s last contract carried a $3.5 million AAV over four seasons.
Kerfoot was one of the Maple Leafs’ best forwards in terms of generating zone entries last season and was in the top half of the team according to his scoring chance assist rate. The problem with Kerfoot has been that he has the tools to get into dangerous areas of the ice but lacks the finishing touch to convert on said opportunities.
For most of his Maple Leafs’ tenure, Kerfoot has been deployed in all situations and trusted in high-leverage situations. He fits the Kraken mold of versatile two-way forwards, but his offensive production left a lot to be desired, given his cap hit.
Depending on how the team values playoff production, Kerfoot’s appeal is diminished. In 48 postseason appearances with the Avalanche and Maple Leafs, the veteran forward has only tallied six goals and 18 points, including two in 11 games during Toronto’s second-round run this past season.
If Kerfoot is willing to take a pay cut, signing him below $3 million would make sense. However, NHL free agency often brings out the worst in general managers, and many get into unwise bidding wars due to the feeling of missing out on a player, often at a much higher price than they would otherwise entertain.
Target #3: Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins
2022-23 Statistics: 78 GP – 27 G – 21 A – 48 PTS – 15:39 ATOI
The third and final free agent target is 31-year-old winger Jason Zucker, a member of the Penguins for the last three-and-a-half seasons. After two seasons of grossly underperforming his $5.5 million cap hit (most of which was due to poor shooting luck), he scored over 21 goals for the first time since the 2017-18 season with the Minnesota Wild.
Zucker created scoring chances at the fifth-highest rate among Penguins forwards while also successfully recovering dump-ins at the fourth-highest clip. He can chip in with offensive contributions while being a capable forechecking presence. For what it’s worth, Zucker also posted a positive penalty-differential in 2022-23, drawing seven more penalties than he took in all situations.
Given Zucker’s age (he turns 32 in January), any interested party should be wary of age-related decline. He enjoyed a bounce-back campaign but did struggle for most of his Penguins tenure, and it’s difficult to tell which version of Zucker a team will get. History suggests teams should steer clear of such players unless he agrees to take a significant discount, but the Kraken could use his scoring touch.
2023 Free Agent Targets: Honorable Mentions
Apart from the previously listed free agent targets, there are several honorable mentions deserving of consideration. These honorable mentions, among others, present enticing options at a bargain-bin price for the Kraken as they approach the 2023-24 season.
- Erik Haula, New Jersey Devils (2022-23 Statistics: 80 GP – 14 G – 27 A – 41 PTS – 16:38 ATOI)
- Tyler Motte, New York Rangers (2022-23 Statistics: 62 GP – 8 G – 11 A – 19 PTS – 12:34 ATOI)
- Conor Sheary, Washington Capitals (2022-23 Statistics: 82 GP – 15 G – 22 A – 37 PTS – 15:46 ATOI)
- Garnet Hathaway, Boston Bruins (2022-23 Statistics: 84 GP – 13 G – 9 A – 22 PTS – 11:48 ATOI)
- Josh Leivo, St. Louis Blues (2022-23 Statistics: 51 GP – 4 G – 12 A – 16 PTS – 11:53 ATOI)
Kraken Can Build on Success of 2022-23 Season in Free Agency
Considering the Kraken entered this past season on the heels of a dismal 60-point inaugural effort, the 2022-23 campaign was an enormous success on all fronts. They completed one of the largest single-season turnarounds in NHL history, clinched a playoff spot in Year Two of the organization’s history, and even won a round before bowing out at the hands of the Dallas Stars.
Those milestones are tangible markers of success, but while fostering a sense of accomplishment and loyalty among the fanbase, they also serve to lift expectations for 2023-24 and beyond. If everyone involved keeps an eye on the long-term picture, even a gradual setback next season should be viewed as another positive step towards one day winning the Stanley Cup.
While the 2023 free agent period is just the next phase in the journey, it represents an opportunity for the Kraken to solidify their standing in the league hierarchy, now and in the future.