Inside the NHL

Last week’s opening of NHL free agency told us a whole lot about the direction the Kraken appear to be headed in the next few seasons.

In short, it’s a revised three- to five-year plan to make the playoffs. Not quite “building through the draft” but also not the dramatic summer-roster infusion openly discussed last winter and spring.

Indeed, the team did not trade draft picks for NHL-ready players in Montreal two weeks ago, as general manager Ron Francis previously stated he’d be attempting. And Francis also did not use ample salary-cap space to make a splash by landing any truly marquee free agents during or since last week’s opening of the signing period. 

Instead, he added second-tier free agents in winger Andre Burakovsky and right-handed shot defenseman Justin Schultz. In fairness, the Burakovsky deal was for a longer five-year commitment, during which the 27-year-old could blossom into an elite scorer.

For now, we’ll see whether his 22 goals with Stanley Cup-winning Colorado translate to identical or better numbers with a team that was third-worst in the league last season. It’s doubtful even the Kraken feel they’ve done enough to bridge the 39-point gap between them and the playoffs. But they don’t really seem to be trying to, at least for this coming season.

Much of that has to do with how the team’s plans shifted this month once it lucked out in Montreal by having Shane Wright topple from a projected No. 1 overall draft slot into their hands at No. 4.

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When that happened, the Kraken were no longer thinking about drafting a defenseman likely two years from the NHL. No, instead the 2022-23 season became all about a supposedly NHL-ready Wright and the team’s No. 2 overall draft pick from last year, Matty Beniers, being trotted out together. 

Suddenly, through what Kraken scouting director Robert Kron termed a “Christmas came early” scenario, the team has been gift-wrapped a pair of potential future top-line centermen for years to come.

And the Kraken want those top-line years to arrive as quickly as possible. So this coming season almost certainly will be used to fully break both players into the NHL, replete with the tribulations, setbacks and growing pains that entails. No, it won’t be some silly “tank” to land next summer’s projected top pick. More of a season getting everybody on the same page, learning to win tough games and staying relevant beyond Thanksgiving this time.

Reinforcing that Beniers-Wright focus, the Kraken last week added a free-agent center in John Hayden regarded as much for his ability to throw a punch as putting the puck in the net. Somebody, after all, needs to protect Beniers and Wright from being manhandled by opponents. The Kraken can’t have top defenseman Jamie Oleksiak sitting out for five minutes every time a warning or response needs to be sent in pugilistic fashion.

Having Beniers and Wright meant the Kraken passed on a more proven NHL center in free agent Nazem Kadri, who remains unsigned. They also appear to have balked at the longer-term financial commitment sought by defenseman John Klingberg, settling for a two-year deal with the older Justin Schultz.

If Schultz doesn’t pan out, the Kraken can cut him loose after the 2023-24 season, likely the first one in which they hope to realistically contend for something. By then, Beniers and Wright should have a full season under their belts and — in a perfect universe — be ready to take the next step.

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That season is also the final one before Beniers becomes a restricted free agent and — if performance matches hype — would earn a major pay increase. Same with Wright a year after that.

So Francis, having chosen to fashion his future playoff team — and his Kraken future — around the two prospects, is understandably reluctant to tie up further serious long-term cash before knowing exactly what they’ll cost. Right now, among Beniers, Wright, Burakovsky and the five-year extension given to winger Jared McCann in March, the Kraken have arranged things so that — by fall 2023 — they’ll have a solid core of seasoned, under-30 forwards ready to attempt a postseason push.

Given all that, pundits who analyze sports transactions based on fiscal prudence and risk aversion will undoubtedly hail the lower-key Kraken free-agent additions as “wise” or “smart” moves.

The challenge, though, becomes if the Kraken don’t make a serious playoff push by Year 3, which is entirely possible. Perhaps the projected young stars need time. Then you’re looking at a four- to five-year plan that looks less “wise” or “smart” as goalie Philipp Grubauer’s free-agent deal winds down. 

Francis certainly didn’t sign Grubauer for six years, $35.4 million last summer because he had some distant five-year plan.

The Kraken also will seek renewals from season-ticket holders locked into three-year deals following the team’s third campaign in 2023-24. If it has become a four- or a five-year plan by that point, the responses could get interesting.

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Sure, that seems a distant worry while basking in the afterglow of the Wright draft. But prospects are just that until they prove themselves, and it doesn’t always happen overnight.

On the flip side, things could go better than hoped.

In fact, there are likely folks in the Kraken’s front office secretly thinking there’s an outside shot at playoffs next season. Remember, some advanced statistical models projected the Kraken could have had a 90-point team last season. So a similar dynamic could theoretically still exist if Grubauer rebounds, the Kraken jell without expansion distractions and COVID-19 is a non-factor.

The addition of Burakovsky and, to a lesser extent, Schultz, should improve the overall offense and power play. Not as much as prized free agents Johnny Gaudreau or Klingberg would have, but they’ll at least be better. Throw in returns from injury by Jaden Schwartz and Brandon Tanev, plus having Beniers all season, and a longshot playoff bid doesn’t sound that far-fetched. Right?

Well, to quote my favorite pugilistic character not Oleksiak or Hayden but literary fiction ex-military cop Jack Reacher: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

The Kraken are planning like a team that knows its first realistic playoff chance won’t come until at least two seasons from now. And the sooner they get there by blending their two top draftees into a team hopefully not competing for another top-five pick next spring, the better everyone will be for it.