Inside the NHL

One week after he started building his team, Kraken general manager Ron Francis can now go about finishing the job.

NHL free agency opens at 9 a.m. Wednesday, and foremost among Kraken needs is proven players up front. One such player, St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz, 29, reportedly all but finalized a deal with Francis during the Kraken’s 72-hour exclusive negotiation window ahead of the expansion draft.

Schwartz would provide a proven 20-goal scorer and make a nice pairing on a line with right wing Jordan Eberle, 31, acquired in the expansion draft. But the Kraken is also far from done bolstering the middle of the ice — both on offense from the center position and likely on defense in terms of a proven elite player and power-play quarterback.

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There are free agents capable of filling those roles, depending on who isn’t re-signed by their teams before Wednesday: Primary among them, center Phillip Danault, 28, of the Montreal Canadiens and right-handed defenseman Dougie Hamilton, 28, of the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis has salary-cap space to carry both, roughly $30 million against the $81.5 million upper limit assuming some players acquired in the expansion draft are left off the team’s NHL roster.

“We will certainly look to spend in free agency,” Francis said, though he quickly cautioned he almost certainly won’t spend to the cap’s upper limit. “Where we are with the cap, it’s pretty hard to get up to that (limit) unless we get every guy we go after, which usually doesn’t happen.” 

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Addressing the center spot is crucial for Francis given the Kraken’s thin expansion-draft haul there, and because Yanni Gourde, 29, recently underwent shoulder surgery and is out at least until November. Also, with No. 2 overall entry-draft pick Matty Beniers possibly joining the Kraken right away, there’s a need for an established center to guide him at his position within the NHL game.

Danault is not your typical point-generating center, earning his value through elite-level two-way play. Montreal’s recent Cup final run was achieved largely by shutting down top opposing scorers, led by Danault’s suffocating defense and penalty killing.

But alas, Danault’s playoff play was so good that one of his semifinal shutdown victims, the Vegas Golden Knights, is apparently poised to sign him. That’s according to a tweet Wednesday afternoon by former Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque, who still lives in Quebec and does public speaking and occasional hockey commentary there.

Considering what Danault did to Vegas in the playoffs — holding top scorer Mark Stone without a point in six games — it’s no surprise the Golden Knights would go big on a guy that seemed an ideal mentor for Kraken draftee Beniers and would have provided a long-term captaincy option once defenseman Mark Giordano, 37, eventually completes what’s likely a short-term stay.  

Other options include Tampa Bay center Blake Coleman, 29, a key part of the Lightning’s consecutive titles and proven 20-goal scorer. There was also a chance as of Tuesday that the Boston Bruins could let center David Krejci, 35, test the market, though it’s questionable how interested the Kraken might be given his age.

On a lesser tier, Casey Cizikas, 30, makes sense if the New York Islanders don’t re-sign him. Same with Mikael Granlund, 29, of the Nashville Predators. 

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For proven scoring, the Kraken could have tried a run at Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, 28, as a left wing franchise cornerstone, but that went by the wayside Tuesday night as his team reportedly agreed to re-sign him to an eight-year, $56 million deal. Teams can offer eight-year contracts to keep existing players, but all other suitors can only go as long as seven years.

With Schwartz playing the same position at a lesser cost, the Kraken might be content signing him as its top-line left wing for now and allocating cap space elsewhere. Left wing Brandon Saad, 28, of Colorado also can be signed, and others such as Kraken forward Jared McCann, 25, can shift from winger to center if needed.

On defense, 6-foot-6, 229-pounder Hamilton is expected to command a max deal equating to roughly $8 million a season. There are other options for power-play quarterback, most notably Edmonton right-handed defenseman Tyson Barrie, 30, an offense-first defender. He is smaller at 5-11 and 197 pounds but could be had for a fewer years and less money.

The Kraken’s expansion-draft haul of defenders was quite good with Adam Larsson, 28, and Jamie Oleksiak, 28, signing within the exclusive free agent window and Vince Dunn (24), Haydn Fleury (25), Jeremy Lauzon (24) and Carson Soucy (27) coming this way. So unless it’s a premium blue-liner making a power-play difference, the need to dip into the second tier of free agents isn’t as pressing. 

Same with goaltending, as the Kraken appears set to go with lower-cost tandem Chris Driedger, 27, and Vitek Vanecek, 25, while using cap space elsewhere. A veteran goalie can always be acquired later, but I’m guessing the Kraken made an analytics bet here and wants to test it first before spending more.

After all, the objective isn’t necessarily for the Kraken to win a championship its first season, so perfection everywhere isn’t needed. Putting a competitive team out there that can continually aim for a playoff position is an immediate goal, so upgrading obvious offensive shortcomings may take precedent this time.

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And of course, despite having nearly $30 million in cap space, Francis must save some for future splurges and to pay players eligible for restricted free agency. NHL players younger than 27, while not eligible for unrestricted free agency, attain “restricted” status once their initial entry-level contract expires.

Francis on Tuesday tendered one-year “qualifying offers’’ to all seven of his restricted free agents — Dunn, Carsen Twarynski, Kole Lind, Alexander True, Will Borgen, Dennis Cholowski and Cale Fleury — selected in the expansion draft. The move amounts to a formality, netting the Kraken a compensatory draft pick if a player declines the offer and signs elsewhere. 

Teams have seven days to match offers to restricted free agents by other clubs. Given the process, restricted free agents rarely leave their clubs once a qualifying offer is made. 

Because the Kraken can keep only 23 players on its NHL roster, there’s a strong chance some expansion draft choices will be traded or — for those on two-way contracts — head to the minors. 

The Kraken on Tuesday traded one expansion draft pick, defenseman Kurtis MacDermid to Colorado for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Much depends on what happens when free agency opens and how active Francis is in using it to finish what he started during last week’s initial roster-building attempt.