In grading a rather surprising opening week in player acquisition for the Kraken, it’s tough not to wonder whether we’re witnessing some first chapter in a future hockey Moneyball book.
The Kraken’s performance in the expansion draft and to a lesser degree the entry draft, screams of hoping to capitalize on market inefficiencies: Namely, an NHL-wide lack of salary-cap space. But also, as hammered home during the recent Stanley Cup playoffs, “character’’ players with “compete factor’’ are becoming a hot commodity.
Partway into his roster-building, general manager Ron Francis has certainly stockpiled cap space and high-energy character guys.
We always knew the Kraken, with its investment in analytics, would diverge from the beaten path. So, in grading performance, best not ignore there’s inevitably some well-crafted plan behind this. Sure, there’s already an NHL cap crunch. But the Kraken’s staffers, I’ve been told, have projected rival teams colliding with even bigger ones in coming seasons.
That said, if we’re throwing financial industry terminology around, there’s an expression most savvy investors eventually heed: No one ever went broke taking profits.
Sure, you can cling to your stock portfolio to maximize an even bigger envisioned future gain, but cashing in a bit here and there when things are up keeps you ahead and mitigates massive downturns.
The Kraken had additional opportunities to take profits in the expansion draft but did not always hedge bets by grabbing talented players. Instead, the team hoarded cap space in hopes of a bigger future payoff.
We’ll know a lot more about the immediate Kraken future once the free-agency period hits this week and right before the Oct. 12 season opener as teams strive to become cap compliant. And until we see how much Francis uses his cap space on obtaining additional players, this is an incomplete work. Overall grade: B
Expansion draft (B): Some really good character pickups and young talent like Haydn Fleury and Vince Dunn, but Francis could have taken additional profit. Defensive forward Morgan Geekie over Jake Bean? The Carolina Hurricanes just traded defenseman Bean to Columbus for a second-round pick. Geekie has a two-way contract that helps roster planning, but worth a second-rounder? We’ll see.
I loved forward Mason Appleton in the playoffs. But Jets defenseman Dylan DeMelo was surprisingly exposed and would have bolstered an already-impressive Kraken defensive foundation, or provided a valuable trade chit. And for a team short on true goal-scoring, one of Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk, or Jakub Voracek would have hedged bets rather than Carsten Twarynski.
The short-term splurge on Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano, 37, provides immediate leadership. If the team lands a future captain in free agents Gabriel Landeskog or Phillip Danualt, you can trade Giordano at the deadline.
Overall, Francis made only one expansion-draft-related trade — sending Tyler Pitlick to Calgary for a 2022 fourth-round selection — and that feels like a missed opportunity. A solid start that preserved cap space for this season and future ones, but Francis needs to start filling it to complete this.
Entry draft (B+): My biggest concern was the Kraken might get too cute and avoid obvious first-rounder Matty Beniers, who ticks all their boxes. Strong marks for not blowing things with a higher-upside gamble.
No, instead, Francis and crew really gambled with second-rounder Ryker Evans at 35th overall when many draft boards had the defenseman a fourth- or fifth-rounder. But if the entire scouting team truly was sold on this pick, there’s a reason you pay them. This had better work, because Francis won’t again be gifted picks this high in an expansion process.
The third-rounder likely mitigated some Evans risk as two-way center Ryan Winterton could have gone higher. The Kraken initially laid eyes on fourth-round defenseman Ville Ottavainen in the OHL, then in Finland last year — live scouting being an edge during COVID-19 restrictions — with their plethora of Scandinavian-based scouts.
I’m not as worried about Rounds 5 through 7 as that’s more of a hunch play on character guys, though I liked the Kraken utilizing its Russian boots-on-the-ground scouting presence seeking a sixth-round gem in goalie Semyon Vyazovoy.
Exploiting leverage (C): Numerous reports had Francis seeking at least a first-rounder to lay off exposed expansion draft players. Teams didn’t bite, suggesting Francis overplayed his hand. Some appeared to trump him with preemptive trades, as with Arizona shipping goalie Adin Hill to San Jose rather losing him for nothing.
The trade price for Hill was a second-round pick and a prospect with a seventh-rounder also going to the Sharks. Bean earned Carolina a second-round pick from Columbus. Dallas center Jason Dickinson fetched a third-round pick from the Vancouver Canucks.
So, the actual market value for some desired players appears lower than the Kraken’s reported asking prices.
Francis didn’t adjust. Instead of Hill, he wound up with Pitlick from Arizona and obtained only a fourth-round selection flipping him.
Free-agent signings (B): We’ll know more after free agency broadly opens Wednesday, but Francis started strong signing goalie Chris Driedger, 27, during his exclusive 72-hour pre-expansion-draft window. He also inked potential top-4 defensemen Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak, both 28, for reasonable longer-term amounts, leaving the door open for a top-pairing, power-play quarterback like free-agent Dougie Hamilton.
There’s clearly analytics at play in forecasting that Driedger, paired with young Vitek Vanecek, 25, eliminated the need for a pricier veteran goalie.
Francis did not capitalize on expansion rules allowing him to offer an extra eighth contract year to a potential franchise player like Landeskog. Nor land a proven elite player, though initial groundwork was likely laid.
Sticking to stated vision (A-): The Kraken wants a high-energy team that competes and from Appleton, to Giordanno, to Yanni Gourde, Dunn and even Beniers, this is a good age mix of that. Same goes for Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev and Jordan Eberle.
Francis also said he wants to build out his team from the middle and he’s done that with a focus on goalies, defensemen and centers in both drafts. What’s missing are elite, NHL-proven players. But the blocks are there.
Risk management (B): Francis did a good job avoiding long-term salary risk and kept current cap space right around $53 million for 21 players under contract against the $81.5 million upper limit.
Still, cap space is only valuable if used eventually. Francis is banking on free agents accepting future offers or cap-squeezed teams dumping better players his way — which is somewhat out of his control. So, he avoided some expansion draft risk by deferring it.
The lack of future entry draft picks secured via side deals also entails risk as the Kraken will need to hit on a higher percentage of fewer selections.