With just over a week remaining until the NHL trade deadline (March 3rd), the action has started to heat up on the trade market.
For the Seattle Kraken, the 2023 trade deadline promises to have a much different vibe compared to last year’s edition when selling off assets was the clear direction.
At the time of this writing, the second-year franchise finds itself third in the Pacific Division and only three points back of the Vegas Golden Knights for the division lead. The Kraken may not be considered among the top tier of Stanley Cup contenders, but locking down a playoff spot would be a boon for a fanbase hungry for the postseason.
Despite the newfound success, the Kraken still have room to improve on multiple fronts. I recently highlighted Seattle’s top trade assets heading into the deadline and identified several intriguing trade targets who could bolster an already competitive roster.
Considering the Kraken’s most significant weakness – goaltending – their top trade target at the deadline should be the Arizona Coyotes’ Karel Vejmelka – let’s dive in.
Goaltending Is Kraken’s Downfall in 2022-23
Even though the Kraken currently find themselves in a much better position in the standings than at this time last year, the level of goaltending that they’ve received has been underwhelming, considering the sizeable financial investment.
Despite shelling out $7.9 million on goaltending – the fifth-highest total in the NHL this season – between Philipp Grubauer ($5.9 million) and Martin Jones ($2 million), the Kraken rank near the bottom in almost every team goaltending metric. They sit 27th in team save percentage (SV%) with a collective .889 and 31st in high-danger SV% (HDSV%).
It’s not as though the team is porous defensively, but rather the opposite. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Kraken rank third in shots conceded at 5-on-5 per 60, eighth in scoring chances against, and 10th in expected goals allowed.
However, when it comes to goals saved above expected (GSAx), Jones has performed much worse relative to expectations. His minus-2.38 GSAx rank 73rd out of 93 goalies while starting for a majority of the season, accumulating 38 appearances to Grubauer’s 22 due to injury.
On the other hand, Grubauer has saved over six goals above expected, the 22nd-best mark this season. His .900 SV% isn’t as favorable, but that metric doesn’t take shot quality into account.
Perhaps the answer is to just turn to Grubauer on a full-time basis instead of relinquishing assets for another goalie. Yet, last season’s performance is still recent enough that committing wholeheartedly to the 31-year-old is a gamble.
Grubauer allowed the most goals above expected in the league, despite the Kraken putting up similarly strong 5-on-5 shot and chance suppression numbers. It’s difficult to determine which version of Grubauer is the one closest to his true talent level, but there is little room for leeway.
The substantial term remaining on Grubauer’s contract (it runs through 2026-27) means the organization is likely stuck with him for the duration of the deal unless they complete a buyout at some point.
In tandem with the German netminder, the Kraken should pursue Vejmelka. He has found relative success (emphasis on relative) behind a poor Coyotes team and owns a favorable contract beyond next season.
Collectively, the pair would cost the Kraken slightly more than what Grubauer and Jones are commanding this year, although the Chris Driedger dilemma throws a wrench into those plans.
Vejmelka Thriving Behind Weak Coyotes Defense
Since being signed as a European free agent prior to the 2021-22 season, Vejmelka has been one of the most valuable netminders in the league. He’s only posted a .900 SV% in that time (57th among goalies with at least 10 games played), but it’s through his GSAx metrics where he truly shines. Vejmelka didn’t perform very well by GSAx in 2021-22, but he’s rebounded very well this season.
Despite facing the fourth-highest cumulative total of expected goals against (and second-highest when adjusting for games played), he has saved 8.2 goals above expected. It’s only the 20th-best mark in the league this season, but he’s outperformed several big names and other goalies carrying larger cap hits.
Unlike the Kraken, the Coyotes have been an abysmal 5-on-5 outfit throughout Vejmelka’s brief tenure. It’s understandable, given where the organization is in their competitive timeline, but that hasn’t made Vejmelka’s workload any easier. The following results are from Natural Stat Trick:
|Statistic (Per-60-Minutes)||Coyotes (2021-23)||NHL Rank|
|Scoring Chances Against||30.8||30th|
|Expected Goals Against||2.84||30th|
|High-Danger Chances Against||13.1||30th|
There’s a discussion to be had about the volume of a goalie’s workload and whether it gradually wears them down and leads to worse results in the long term. It follows that, behind the Kraken’s strong defensive structure, he could perform as a result of less wear and tear, both physically and mentally.
Vejmelka’s Contract Fits Into Kraken Salary Structure
Apart from his admirable performance in a less-than-ideal playing environment, Vejmelka’s extremely team-friendly contract makes him even more attractive as a trade target.
The soon-to-be 27-year-old netminder is only owed $2.725 million per season through 2024-25, the 41st-highest cap hit at his position. Vejmelka is currently earning less than Jacob Markstrom ($6 million), Jordan Binnington ($6 million), and Cal Petersen ($5 million), among others.
Although pending restricted free agent (RFA) defenseman Vince Dunn could ask for a raise on the $4 million he’s making this season, Jones, Joonas Donskoi ($3.9 million), and Carson Soucy ($2.75 million) will likely be coming off the books this summer.
Using CapFriendly’s Armchair GM feature, the Kraken should have more than $5 million in cap space next season, assuming the names above leave in free agency and pending free agents are awarded modest raises. That also includes Driedger’s presence on the roster, although buying him out next summer wouldn’t carry too much of a hit in either 2023-24 ($0.5 million) or 2024-25 ($1.5 million).
Despite the modest cap commitment, Vejmelka has provided much greater value than would normally be expected of a typical older European free agent. As far as cap gymnastics go, acquiring Vejmelka shouldn’t give general manager Ron Francis too strong of a migraine, and straightforward accompanying moves can also be made.
NHL’s Western Conference Playoff Field Is Wide Open
Even if they decide to forgo any significant deadline dealings, fans can rest assured that, at the very least, the Kraken will avoid the Eastern Conference postseason gauntlet.
Absurdly, the league’s top six teams by points percentage (PTS%) and goal difference all hail from the East. In fact, the Golden Knights – the West’s top-ranked club – would not hold an automatic playoff spot in either the Metropolitan or Atlantic division.
The Kraken rank third in the West by PTS% and are in the driver’s seat when it comes to claiming home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Weirder things have happened, so it’s not unfathomable to think that the Kraken can make a deep run in the postseason if the matchups fall in their favor.
For that reason, making a significant trade at the deadline to shore up their crease should be a priority. With all the uncertainty in the West, not doing so would represent a clearly missed opportunity to make inroads in a ravenous hockey market.