Inside the NHL

It was inevitable on Tuesday that Kraken prospect Shane Wright would be asked about the “death stare” he appeared to flash at an opposing team’s table when called up on stage after being taken No. 4 overall in last week’s NHL draft.

Wright, projected by many to go No. 1 overall before being bypassed by Montreal, New Jersey and Arizona, met with local media after the second day of the team’s development camp. There wasn’t anything significantly different said by Wright this time compared to the generally positive vibes provided media members in Montreal for the draft, though the staring controversy has since gained traction on social media.

“I wasn’t trying to put a death stare towards Montreal, or to another table or anything,” Wright said Tuesday, adding he was trying to focus on the television camera in front of Montreal’s table. “But I guess I can see where people can get a little mixed up there.”

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Well, perhaps the confusion arose from Wright giving an on-air interview to the Kraken’s flagship broadcast partner, Sports Radio KJR, last Friday and being asked about the apparent stare. He told hosts Chuck Powell and Bucky Jacobsen: “I’m probably not going to specify who I was looking at. But definitely I was looking at someone. I had a little added motivation for sure. A little more chip on my shoulder. But yeah, I’m not going to specify who it was at.”

Anyhow, regardless of whether the stare was at the Canadiens, Devils or Coyotes for the snub, or a Bell Centre poutine vendor who shortchanged him on his cheese curds, Wright bringing some edge to a Kraken team needing more of it probably isn’t the worst thing. Having both Wright and fellow centerman Matty Beniers should inevitably help this team get better.

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But for all the hoopla over the draft, the real shaping of the next few seasons begins Wednesday morning. That’s when NHL free agency opens at 9 a.m. local time, with the Kraken potentially signing significant players.

And hopes the team might aggressively pursue top guys were buoyed by Monday’s decision not to offer a contract to restricted free agent winger Ryan Donato. Another winger, Daniel Sprong, also wasn’t tendered a deal, but it was the Donato decision that more strongly irked some fans.

Donato finished fourth on the team with 16 goals, added 15 assists and was a likable guy with a story of having bounced around other squads before appearing to find a Kraken home. At age 26 and not expected to command huge money, it seemed he’d be retained.

Which means, for the Kraken to jettison him, you’d have to think there’s something bigger at play. Immediately, thoughts turned to Calgary Flames unrestricted free agent Johnny Gaudreau, a 40-goal-scoring left wing last season who finished with 115 points in helping his team win the Pacific Division and advance to the second playoff round. 

Gaudreau, who turns 29 next month, could command huge money in the $10 million range annually over seven years. And the Kraken are one of few clubs with the salary cap space — some $23 million — to get him. 

There’s also Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri, who turns 32 in October and is coming off a career year. The Kraken are becoming deep in centermen, though Wright and Beniers remain unproven and could probably use an older mentor.

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Kraken general manager Ron Francis could also shore-up his defense by landing right-handed shot defenseman John Klingberg, a potential power play “quarterback” who turns 30 next month. Considering the Kraken also non-tendered defensemen Haydn Fleury and Dennis Cholowski, odds are good another defender is incoming. 

There are less expensive options, starting with restricted free agents also non-tendered Monday, the most shocking being Dylan Strome, a 22-goal, 48-point Chicago Blackhawks center with four full seasons and parts of two others already at age 25.

Strome’s Chicago teammate, left wing Dominik Kubalik, 26, is also out there as a former 30 goal-scorer who popped 15 last season. So is Anaheim left wing Sonny Milano, 26, just had a breakout 14-goal season. Victor Mete, 26, is a puck-moving defender just cut loose by Ottawa.

Regardless of who Francis brings in, you get the sense he needs to make a splash of sorts. 

Francis at the March trade deadline told reporters: “We do have the cap space. We do have the money. We still plan on being pretty active in free agency if we can be. Those are the things that can help us kind of turn things around.”

Mind you, he also said some draft picks acquired at the deadline — giving him 12 this year and 13 next summer — could be traded. “What it does is, it gives us some draft capital,” Francis said. “And we can go to the market in summertime. If teams need to move players, then we have those picks we can trade for players.”

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That didn’t happen last week. And that adds pressure on the free agency end.

Sure, Francis could go for cheaper, lower upside moves and wait for Beniers and Wright to blossom. I’ve read analytical pieces stating that the Kraken aren’t “one player away” from contending and shouldn’t tie themselves up with big free agent contracts. 

Thing is, they wouldn’t be signing that free agent for just next season.

Besides, they have goalie Philipp Grubauer signed for five more seasons at a team-high $5.9 million annually. Logic dictates they should try to maximize that investment while he’s here. 

Or, put it this way. 

Buffalo from 2013 through last year’s draft had two Nos. 1 overall, two Nos. 2 overall and seven top-10 selections while failing to make the playoffs. New Jersey over the same span had two Nos. 1 overall, a No. 4, a No. 6 and a No. 7, while making the playoffs once and zero times the last four seasons. 

Even with the highest of draft picks, it can take years to assemble a playoff team through mostly that route.

The Kraken are trying to establish a local presence and don’t want to wait five years to become playoff contenders just as Grubauer’s deal expires. Francis himself said post-trade-deadline he told his players that “we didn’t do all this to draft and develop and be good five years from now.”

So, starting Wednesday, they’ll undoubtedly try to speed things along. And we’ll see how significantly they can infuse this team so that any future Kraken stare downs are accompanied by mocking gestures at that game’s scoreboard.