Things appear much clearer today with the Kraken’s plans for the coming season than after last week’s NHL expansion draft.
The Kraken has a marquee player in goaltender Philipp Grubauer, 29, after signing him Wednesday on the opening day of NHL free agency. The additions of left wing Jaden Schwartz, 29, and center Alexander Wennberg, 26, provide the makings of two top Kraken forward lines, though the team could probably use another “top six” player.
For those unfamiliar with hockey terminology, “top six” means a team’s best offensive skill players on its two top lines of three forwards each.
The “bottom six” are on Lines 3 and 4 — typically players limited in offensive ability and used primarily to check, defend and hold the other team off the scoreboard while top players get a rest. A “middle six” player is somebody who can bounce between Lines 2 and 3 — not a top-line goal-scorer but just good enough to be dangerous. Usually this player is a talented forechecker capable of wreaking havoc.
Anyway, I have been asked about the term by readers, so hopefully that helps. Now let’s answer a few more free-agency questions.
Question: Why has everybody seemed confused by some of the Kraken’s roster-building up to now?
Answer: Count me among the initially befuddled. But it’s clearer now, especially after the free-agent signings. One thing worth remembering: analytics are playing a key role in Kraken decisions and maximizing value — both obvious and sometimes hidden — is driving player moves. As I replied to somebody on Twitter, the sum of this team will likely be greater than its parts.
So, when people ask “Where’s the scoring going to come from?” I’d argue the Kraken — with free-agent-forward signings Schwartz and Wennberg and Jordan Eberle selected from the New York Islanders in the expansion draft — has decent enough scoring to win close games. Also, the makings of above-average goal prevention. There are the pre-expansion draft free-agent signings of defensemen Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson to go with veteran blue-liner Mark Giordano and an infusion of talented young defenders.
Throw in free-agent goalie signings Grubauer and Chris Driedger, and this team should prevent goals. Grubauer won’t have the Colorado Avalanche’s elite defensive core in front of him, but the high number of tenacious, two-way forwards the Kraken acquired should compensate for that.
That’s some of the hidden stuff you get from “analytics-leaning” teams. If your forwards have an above-average defensive component, it can make up for a lack of elite-level defensemen.
Schwartz, upon signing his five-year, $27.5 million deal, described the Kraken as having “a lot of good players, a lot of good hockey IQs and guys that like to play both sides of the ice. They’ve also got a lot of deep defensemen — guys that can play different roles.”
The Montreal Canadiens were a team with a sum greater than its parts and made the Stanley Cup Final despite scoring only 2.47 goals per game the first three playoff rounds. That’s identical to last season’s abysmal Buffalo Sabres rate in compiling the league’s worst record. How did the Canadiens ever win? They forechecked and backchecked like crazy and allowed only 2.18 goals per game in those three rounds.
Q: Is the team trying to save salary-cap space so ownership keeps more money?
A: No, and if it were I’d be the first to tell you.
The Kraken is maximizing the dollars it allocates to preserve cap space for this season and further down the road. I’ve been told staffers have done projections in which opposing teams in a year or two will be hopelessly crushed up against a cap limit staying flat at $81.5 million. Think it’s bad now? Just wait.
It’s only going to get worse for teams as contracts for talented players start coming due next summer and seasons beyond. The Kraken wants enough salary-cap space to move if bigger stars are jettisoned.
Q: What does “maximizing the dollars it allocates” actually mean? Is that code for going cheap?
A: No, it means getting roughly the same player for less money. In a recent story I used the example of Philadelphia Flyers left wing James van Riemsdyk, 32, who was available in the expansion draft with two contract years remaining at a $7 million annual cap hit.
The Kraken passed and was second-guessed by some, including me.
But van Riemsdyk throughout a career comprising 797 games has averaged 0.66 points per contest.
Schwartz, three years younger, has played 560 games — roughly an identical trajectory — and averaged a slightly better 0.69 points per contest. And his new Kraken deal takes up $1.5 million less cap space annually.
True, the Schwartz deal is for three seasons longer. But with Schwartz three years younger, both players will see their contracts expire by age 34. So you’re getting Schwartz for his younger age 29, 30 and 31 seasons while taking van Riemsdyk gets him only at ages 32 and 33.
Granted, any five-year deal carries risk. And Schwartz missed 16 games because of an oblique injury last season. But if Schwartz produces near his career average, the Kraken gets similar production to van Riemsdyk while preserving $1.5 million in cap space each of the next two years.
As for Wennberg, the best available free-agent center was likely Montreal’s Phillip Danault. As mentioned, Montreal reached the Cup Final with goal prevention, led largely by Danault negating opposing scorers.
As many have noted, the defensive-minded Danault is a little wanting offensively. Still, the Los Angeles Kings gave him $5.5 million annually the next six years.
Wennberg got $4.5 million annually over three years. And though he isn’t the same shutdown defender as Danault, he might be better offensively. He scored a career-high 17 goals with Florida last season.
“Obviously, the offensive game was way better last year,” Wennberg said Thursday. “I got my goal-scoring up a little bit, which is something I’ve been looking to improve.
“But me, personally, I always want to be a 200-foot player. I want to be an offensive player who can be a threat and really contribute that way. But for me, I feel the responsibility to play on the PK (penalty-kill unit) and to be a solid defensive guy is just as important.”
So, how much should a team value defense in a center?
If Wennberg amounts to, say, 80% the defensive player Danault is, will his offense bridge the gap? Because if he’s close, the Kraken just saved $1 million a season in cap space over half as many contract years.
Even the $5.9 million annual goaltending splurge on Grubauer the next six seasons found value. Especially when compared with the option of taking a banged-up Carey Price for five more years at $10.5 million annually in the expansion draft. The Grubauer and Driedger tandem costs $9.4 million a season — $1.1 million less for two healthy goalies.
Q: So what does it all mean?
A: With both goalies, Schwartz and Wennberg, the Kraken saved $3.6 million in annual cap space the next three years over a Price/van Riemsdyk/Danault combination. The Wennberg and Driedger deals are up after that, but in the interim, that savings alone affords another good player.
And there’s still about $14 million in remaining cap space this season. Another impact move or two is likely needed, considering any injuries to Schwartz or Eberle could hamper overall production.
But there is definitely a plan here. And it could work quite well if some Kraken guys merely live up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards.