With the Kraken now inside six weeks until training camp, the team continues seeking roster upgrades with about $10 million in salary-cap space.
It made depth and routine contractual moves this past week, on Friday signing restricted free-agent defenseman Vince Dunn, 24, to a two-year deal worth $4 million annually after taking him from St. Louis in the expansion draft. That same day, the team inked a one-year, $1.5 million pact with unrestricted free-agent forward Marcus Johansson, who played with Minnesota last season and can handle either wing position or center.
Thursday, the Kraken signed restricted free-agent defenseman Will Borgen, 24, to a two-year deal averaging $900,000 annually after selecting the right-handed shooter from Buffalo in last month’s expansion draft.
And on Wednesday, it signed former Seattle Thunderbirds center Alex True, 24, taken from San Jose in the same draft, and unrestricted free-agent defenseman Connor Carrick, 27, each to one-year, two-way contracts with both likely ticketed for the American Hockey League. True, 24, would earn $750,000 if he plays in the NHL, while Carrick, 27, another right-handed blueline shot who spent the past three years with New Jersey, would get $800,000, though both will receive significantly less if assigned to the AHL affiliate.
The team will probably take a long look at True in training camp given the thin roster at center, while Johansson’s flexibility provides the team multiple center options on its middle two lines. Carrick has appeared in 241 games with four teams over parts of seven seasons and could frequently help the Kraken with injury depth.
In fact, some of you have questions about the Kraken’s depth, centers and other stuff. So, let’s get to them.
You asked two questions for the price of one but given the importance of vaccinations, I’ll answer both.
Yes, the team is at least considering a vaccination proof requirement and holding internal meetings this week and next about such pandemic protocols. It’s a very fluid situation, obviously, and the team will be looking for additional state guidance related to its home arena of 17,000-plus seats and the Community Iceplex practice facility holding 1,000 spectators. Right now, everyone is in a holding pattern waiting to see how serious the new delta variant caseloads become and whether health authorities begin shutting things down again. But yes, the Kraken is aware it must address vaccinations very soon.
On your question about centers, no, I don’t think the team is comfortable short term. It would be different if Yanni Gourde was starting the season healthy, but post-surgery, he’ll have minimal on-ice impact before December or January.
The Kraken is essentially banking on Florida’s former third-line center Alex Wennberg jumping to the top line. That’s a big ask, even coming off a career-high 17 goals in a shortened season.
Gourde will also be asked to similarly take on a greater top-line role, so that’s a lot of finger-crossing at one position already.
Still, plenty of NHL teams lack a true No. 1 centerman. And the Kraken just drafted a potential future one in Matty Beniers from the University of Michigan. There’s still a chance Beniers begins with the Kraken this fall and helps bridge the gap until Gourde’s anticipated return.
As an NCAA prospect, Beniers is eligible for the AHL even as a teenager. So, the Kraken could keep him a month or two and then, if needed, ship him to the AHL for more seasoning once Gourde returns. It could also keep centerman True out of training camp as that bridge to Gourde if Beniers returns to school.
As you mention, the Kraken also has multiple wingers that can play center, with newly signed Johansson the latest one. Some are more experienced at key tasks like taking faceoffs, which Mason Appleton and Morgan Geekie haven’t done much at the NHL level. So, it depends on what the Kraken prioritizes, but there is flexibility.
That said, flexibility only goes so far. Does the Kraken have four centers for four lines that have done it regularly in the NHL? Right now, the team appears at least a man short.
I’d expect the Kraken either leapfrogs Beniers to the NHL or trades for a center in training camp as other teams strive for cap compliance. There’s nothing in free agency the Kraken doesn’t already have.
I think it has a chance, but right now I am not penciling the Kraken in for a playoff spot. The goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger might be the league’s best while top-four defensemen Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, Mark Giordano and Vince Dunn also look solid. The two-way play of the forwards brings an added goal prevention element important for playoff teams. Offensively, I recently wrote about the number of potential 20-goal scorers the team has and it is impressive — concerns about center depth aside.
So, I don’t think the team is far off in a relatively weak Pacific Division. But importing another proven 25- or 30-goal scorer would ease my concerns substantially. Even if it’s a two-year flyer on Vladimir Tarasenko if the St. Louis Blues ate some money to reduce his annual cap hit to $4 million or $5 million. Right now, with the offense, there’s an issue with center depth and elite-level goal production, and it was already going to take time for an unfamiliar team to mesh. Plus, the Kraken is asking quite a few players to take on added role responsibility and it’s doubtful they all succeed.
Some of that lack of proven scoring can be made up for with tenacious, energetic forechecking. We saw how well that worked for teams in the recent playoffs. It’s just tough to play that intensely over 82 games without injuries and burnout. I’d like more scoring added before calling this a playoff team.
The Kraken hired former Buffalo Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen as a pro scout a while back and I assumed he’d have the goalie coach job once it presented itself.
Allen was just in town for recent team meetings and I’m told was quite positive about the goalies the team wound up with. Who wouldn’t be, right? Kraken GM Ron Francis told me Allen is definitely in the coaching mix and he expects to announce something within a week.
The Penguins just fired goaltending coach Mike Buckley and he has Kraken front-office ties from assistant GM Jason Botterill’s time with Pittsburgh. Also, Francis is very close with former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, himself a onetime NHL goalie and a big Buckley backer. And Stephane Waite lost his job in Montreal midseason, so there are prominent names out there if searching beyond Allen.
I’ve told folks the recent playoffs felt like a last hurrah as a Montreal Canadiens fan. It was great watching them make the final, reconnecting with longtime friends during games and seeing how happy they made people in my native city. But there can’t be outright fandom in any one team when you cover a sport professionally.
I liken it somewhat to the Quebec-born players involved in big plays against Montreal in the playoffs for Vegas and Tampa Bay. Though he grew up cheering for Montreal, I doubt Marc-Andre Fleury was happy for the Canadiens when his mishandling of the puck late in Game 3 cost the Golden Knights the game and probably a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
And I doubt Gourde felt sentimental about Montreal’s first Cup final since 1993 when scoring a key Game 1 goal for the Lightning. Both Fleury and Gourde had personal stakes in different teams that trumped prior Canadiens fandom.
Likewise, I feel a personal stake in the Kraken, even though my job doesn’t permit rooting for them. I’ve spent years chronicling the team’s birth, and will be paid to critique it closely for a brand-new fan base. There’s no room left to cheer for the Canadiens. My life revolves around a different NHL team.