While not making the biggest splash when free agency opened last week, Kraken general manager Ron Francis on Friday capitalized on a salary cap squeeze faced by a club that actually did land this summer’s prized marquee name.
And in using his ample cap space plus a pair of 2023 draft picks to pry 28-goal-scoring winger Oliver Bjorkstrand away from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Francis added needed offensive firepower that should bolster the Kraken short and long term. Columbus needed to deal the remaining four years, $21.6 million of Bjorkstrand’s contract to remain cap compliant after last week’s signing of top free agent winger Johnny Gaudreau and the re-signing Friday of Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine.
“Because we had the cap space and we had the draft capital, that allowed us to get into a situation where Columbus signed Gaudreau and then signed Laine and there just wasn’t enough cap space to go around,” Francis said in an interview after the trade. “They had to move out a real good player, and we were fortunate that we were able to put together the deal with them and acquire Oliver. He’s a real good plus.”
Bjorkstrand, 27, a 6-foot, 177-pound onetime Portland Winterhawks junior standout described by Francis as “an exciting guy” who “plays well in all three zones” on both wings, is coming off career highs with both the 28 goals as well as 57 points. In return for the Denmark native, the Kraken sent the Blue Jackets a third- and fourth-round pick next summer.
The move comes nine days after the Kraken signed free agent Colorado Avalanche winger Andre Burakovsky to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, an acquisition that now looks a whole lot more intriguing for next season in context with Friday’s trade. Before the Bjorkstrand deal, the Kraken’s big move essentially equated to a swap of 16-goal forward Ryan Donato — who wasn’t tendered a contract as a restricted free agent — for a winger in Burakovsky whose 22 goals last season came while playing for a star-studded Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche lineup.
While still an apparent upgrade, it was unclear how much of a short-term needle mover it would actually be for a Kraken team that ranked third worst in goal scoring last season. But that short-term outlook now changes with the addition of Bjorkstrand, whose goals and points totals were more than any Kraken player had last season and underscored his consistency burying pucks behind netminders.
His just-completed breakout season was preceded by a 2020-21 campaign in which he also scored 18 goals in just 56 games, while another COVID-19-shortened 49-game season prior saw him score 21 times.
He also scored 23 goals over a full season of games in the 2018-19 season, giving him at least 20 goals in three of the past four campaigns — the lone exception being the pandemic-abbreviated 2020-21 campaign where his production level equated to 26 goals over a full 82-game season.
His career-high nine power play goals last season also evidenced a player that should dramatically help a Kraken unit that floundered with the league’s fourth worst success rate.
“It was a difficult decision to trade Oliver, who has given so much to our organization over the past seven years,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters.
Columbus signed Gaudreau for seven years, $68.25 million while Laine’s deal was for four years, $34.8 million and thrust the Blue Jackets well beyond the NHL’s team cap limit of $82.5 million for next season. Teams have additional cap room of 10% beyond that limit from the start of free agency through the end of training camp before they must become compliant.
With Friday’s trade, the Kraken still have about $3.6 million in additional salary cap space remaining for next season, according to the CapFriendly website. Francis wouldn’t rule out further additions such as “another depth D and another depth forward” and added that bringing back Donato is still possible at the right price.
For now, he has a trio of 20-goal-scorers all age 27 or younger under contract together for at least the next four seasons in Bjorkstrand, Burakovsky and Jared McCann at a time the team will be breaking in young centermen Matty Beniers and Shane Wright.
“We’re hoping these guys can score goals, and that was an area we struggled in last season,” Francis said. “So, we’re adding more skill to our lineup. It gives us a better chance to score five-on-five. It gives us a better chance to have a more successful power play. And those are all important in today’s game.”
Francis had long talked about using his ample cap space and draft picks to bolster the on-ice product. While he didn’t deal any of his plethora of 2022 picks before this month’s draft in Montreal, the 2023 third rounder sent to the Blue Jackets had been acquired from Calgary in March for forward Calle Jarnkrok while the fourth rounder came from Winnipeg in exchange for forward Mason Appleton.
Francis said talks began right around the time of the Gaudreau signing and escalated “the last few days” as the Blue Jackets looked for extra cap space to get a Laine deal done. Between Bjorkstrand, Burakovsky, the signing of offensive-minded defenseman Justin Schultz, plus incoming draft picks Beniers and Wright and returns from injury by injury Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz, Francis feels as if he’s added seven “new pieces” to the goal-challenged team that finished last season.
“I think it’s increased our skill level and our ability to score,” he said. “So, hopefully that plays out as the season starts.”