There were moments during the Kraken’s excruciating, 1,024-day wait between its official creation and Thursday’s opening of training camp that the idea of actual players taking the ice for a team workout seemed like some unattainable fantasy.
But an ever-mounting, albeit slow-to-emerge, list of milestones since that December 2018 franchise birth in Sea Island, Georgia, began in mid-2019 with a front office, then some scouts and finally, about a year after that, a team name and logo. A coaching staff emerged in June, then some long-awaited players in July and August, leaving little to do now except lace up skates and start playing hockey.
A total of 44 players will take part in the team’s inaugural training camp at the new $80 million Kraken Community Iceplex at Northgate, though only about half will be on the active roster by the Oct. 12 season opener. All of the team’s training-camp practices are sold out, and no walk-ins are allowed.
“This is what we’ve worked toward the past 2½ years,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said this week. “Now that you finally get to see it happen, it’s pretty special.”
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol is also eager for a look at what he’s got ahead of a fast-approaching preseason schedule. The Kraken opens in Spokane on Sunday night against the Vancouver Canucks, then plays in Edmonton on Tuesday and Calgary on Wednesday.
Hakstol is well-versed in the NHL’s fast-opening preseason schedule, which is unlike the multiple weeks of workouts ahead of MLB spring-training games or the NFL preseason. He’ll stage an intrasquad affair Saturday at the training complex, bring most of his camp roster to Spokane for Sunday’s game and then split the squad more for the Alberta matchups.
Although hockey gets into preseason games much quicker than this city’s other professional teams, there are commonalities between the respective training camps. The biggest similarity: Expansion team or not, the Kraken already knows the vast majority of who will be dressing for the regular-season opener in Las Vegas.
There are 23 players allowed on an active NHL roster, and up to 20 — 18 skaters and two goalies — can dress for games. Teams typically carry 12 forwards on four lines, six defensemen in three pairings plus a starting goaltender and his backup.
The remaining two or three roster players are deemed “healthy scratches” and watch the game in street clothes.
So, any “battles” for actual Kraken jobs will be primarily for bottom-roster positions. Also for spots on special-teams units, especially the power play where the Kraken will see whether 24-year-old puck-moving defenseman Vince Dunn — acquired from St. Louis in the NHL expansion draft and handed a two-year deal averaging $4 million annually — can be its blue-line quarterback.
As for actual camp battles, well, Chris Driedger isn’t supplanting Philipp Grubauer as the No. 1 goalie. Same on defense, where any combination of Mark Giordano, Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson will comprise the top two pairings, leaving Carson Soucy and Haydn Fleury as the likely final pair while Jeremy Lauzon, Will Borgen, Cale Fleury, Gustav Olofsson, Dennis Cholowski and others fight to gain a remaining roster spot.
The offseason shoulder surgery that will keep center Yanni Gourde out until November or December adds intrigue to the forward lines, though a top trio of center Alex Wennberg, 27, flanked by Jaden Schwartz, 29, on left wing and Jordan Eberle, 31, on the right appears etched in stone. That could change once Gourde returns, though the No. 1 center spot for now appears to be Wennberg’s to lose after he handled third-line duties for the Florida Panthers.
On most of the second and third lines, the battles realistically aren’t as much about making the team as establishing which forwards slot best at particular positions. The Kraken acquired players who are versatile at center and one or both wings, meaning the positions could change. But you’ll almost certainly see Jared McCann (25), Calle Jarnkrok (29) and Joonas Donskoi (29) rounding out the “top six” forward lines.
That again leaves the only true job battles among “bottom six” forwards, primarily on the fourth line as is usually the case. And given this is an expansion team, some players already familiar to Hakstol and his coaches, or Francis and the front office, could have a narrow edge.
One of the more intriguing players could be Morgan Geekie, 23, the centerman taken from Carolina by Francis in the expansion draft ahead of more obvious choices in defenseman Jake Bean and forward Nino Niederreiter. As Carolina’s GM in 2017, Francis used a third-round draft pick on the 6-foot-3, 192-pound Geekie and clearly still sees potential in a guy with solid AHL center experience and minimal NHL time.
With Gourde out and No. 2 overall draft pick Matty Beniers returning to the University of Michigan, the Kraken isn’t overflowing with top centermen. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Geekie centering the third line, though he could just as easily drop to the fourth, or even the AHL.
Brandon Tanev, 29, is likely the third-line left wing, and Mason Appleton, 25, looks good on the right, though he also plays center. Throwing a late wrench into things are the recent signings of free-agent forwards Riley Sheahan, 29, and Ryan Donato, 25, who both can play center.
Sheahan and Donato are on one-way contracts for $850,000 and $750,000, respectively, and will earn those amounts regardless of whether playing in the NHL or AHL. Geekie, like other young players, has a two-way deal paying $750,000 in the NHL but just $75,000 in the AHL.
So in close-fought positional battles, teams often keep the guys with one-way contracts and send those on two-way deals to the AHL to save money. It’s not a flawless way to gauge camp competitions but a decent enough cheat sheet.
Other forwards on two-way deals besides Geekie include Alex True, Carsen Twarynski, Kole Lind and Luke Henman. So they’re in a tough competition against the likes of Marcus Johansson, Colin Blackwell and Nathan Bastian for remaining spots on the bottom forward lines.
Same on defense where Lauzon (24) and Borgen (24), taken from Boston and Buffalo, respectively, in the expansion draft, have one-way contracts. Cale Fleury, Cholowski, Olofsson, Carrick and others competing for blue-line roster spots have two-way deals and can be cheaply stashed in the minors.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, as standout performances do happen annually in camps everywhere. And a Kraken team with solid performers but lacking in obvious star power would undoubtedly welcome a surprise or two before the regular season begins.