After a year of persistent rumination and countless hypothetical simulations, the expansion draft is finally upon us, with the Seattle Kraken now knowing with certainty which of the NHL’s crop of outcasts will be available for selection.
The Kraken management group must now decide whether short- or long-term prosperity is more desirable ahead of their inaugural season, with the potential for either well within their grasp.
The following are three feasible team-building philosophies that the Kraken can adopt for the expansion draft, with each approach presenting an intriguing discussion around opportunity cost.
1. Go for a playoff spot in year one
At first glance, the list of exposed skaters and goalies offers some tantalizing options, several of which could form the core of the franchise’s marketing strategy or lead them to immediate on-ice success.
Price. Tarasenko. Giordano. Subban. van Riemsdyk. These are all names that carry national cache and would manufacture considerable buzz within the region, significantly boosting ticket and merchandise sales ahead of their season opener.
It is also important to note that the Kraken will join the NHL’s Pacific Division, which many consider the league’s worst in terms of quality. Outside of the Golden Knights, no other franchise should be penciled into a playoff spot. This uncertainty represents a legitimate opportunity to sneak into the postseason if Seattle was so inclined.
Romping through the division would stir up local interest and signal to the league that Seattle is keen on building a competitive program from the outset, and thus making them an appealing destination in free agency.
However, the Kraken must consider the opportunity cost of overlooking younger and more promising players in favor of established stars. It may eventually hamper Seattle in that when the current crop of talent declines; the franchise would have to hit on most of their draft picks to maintain a steady stream of budding, affordable talent.
2. Keep the books clean
After scouring the finalized protection lists, Seattle can select a considerable number of players whose contracts expire next season and would allow them to operate from a position of flexibility when dealing with pending free agents.
This would afford them time to evaluate which players mesh with their core values and the opportunity to painlessly separate if there is no longer a fit.
Maintaining cap space open may also help them take on boat-anchor deals from other teams in exchange for valuable assets or being in the position to pounce on animosity between franchises and their disgruntled stars (Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, etc.).
Further, upcoming free agent classes could see several prominent NHL stars hit the open market, such as Dougie Hamilton (2021), Seth Jones or Alex Barkov (2022), or even Nathan McKinnon and David Pastrnak (2023).
If the Kraken play their cards right, they could have the cap space to put down a blank cheque in front of a potential recruit and instruct them to name their price. While most of those I mentioned will likely re-sign with their teams when the time comes, Seattle would be wise not to underestimate the persuasiveness of a huge payday.
3. Draft for the future
Entering the league as an expansion franchise affords the Kraken certain privileges that other teams may not be able to leverage during their roster construction.
Their fans will not expect the club to trot out an immediate juggernaut, which could encourage Seattle to make their initial selections with an eye towards their future cap sheet and the stockpiling of assets, whether draft picks or prospects.
The stricter nature of the modern exposure requirements means that several young, unproven players have been left vulnerable to the eager tentacles of the Kraken.
NHL rosters can be difficult to crack, and the reality is that occasionally, promising skaters can get pushed down in the lineup and struggle to find consistent ice-time. An expansion team can provide an opportunity for such a player to blossom while providing value on cheaper than expected deal.
The foundation of the Golden Knights’ incredulous inaugural season was the contributions of unheralded outcasts who punched well above expectation. There is no reason to think that Seattle could not unearth a few gems of their own in the process.
While icing a young roster may be beneficial for development, the team will likely not be as competitive at first as a result. However, the 2022 and 2023 NHL drafts are shaping up to be momentous, with future superstars in Shane Wright (2022) and Conor Bedard or Matvei Michkov (2023) coming up the pike soon.
The prospect of immediate success is alluring and likely has Seattle’s owners salivating at the thought of playoff ticket sales and heightened TV deals. Still, if the Kraken can hold firm with their mantra of patience and development, they could have the next generation’s Crosby or Ovechkin on their hands, and that, to me, is worth more than extra revenue next season.
Seattle is in the enviable position of constructing a roster from scratch and having the freedom to direct the franchise in one of a multitude of appealing directions.
I recognize that there are many variables at play, including motives related to profit and financial sustainability. Still, if I were in Ron Francis’ position, I would bank on the established goodwill within the fanbase and patiently build a future contender by accumulating draft capital while maintaining future cap flexibility for when the team is prepared to progress into being a true contender.
No matter which path the Kraken end up choosing, they will be the most fascinating franchise to watch this summer.