The big NHL news this week didn’t even involve a player, but the father of legendary Wayne Gretzky dying at age 82.
Walter Gretzky was the epitome of humble, self-effacing class and what it means to be a hockey parent. From flooding his backyard into a makeshift rink in Brantford, Ontario, to driving young Wayne to arenas at all hours and being his rock of support when navigating pro-team offers as a young teenager, Walter never stopped being there and reminding his son to stay humble. It’s why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman put out a statement about his death. You just don’t see that anywhere for the father of a player that retired more than two decades ago.
Rather than general Kraken questions this week, I’ve tackled more specific ones involving quite-talented players. Not Gretzky talented, but the kind that do get single letters sewn on their sweaters.
Q: “What are the chances that the Kraken take @TJOshie77 in the expansion draft? I really hope he ends up back here in WA. He would immediately be one of the most popular players.” — @tedfdahlstrom
You’d have to think the Capitals leave fan-favorite T.J. Oshie unprotected, given he’ll turn 35 next December with four remaining contract years at an annual salary cap hit of $5.75 million. With five goals and nine assists in 21 games as of Friday and recent injuries, he’d ordinarily be difficult to trade.
But as we’ve mentioned before, the Kraken can take on salary. They have a zero balance sheet, must spend to the salary cap minimum of about $60 million and probably will aim closer to the maximum $81.5 million.
So, they’ll be intentionally overspending on the “right” players just to reach the cap minimum. Is Oshie one? Ordinarily, I’d say he isn’t. But the intangibles are too good to ignore. A bona fide name player and veteran leader that happens to hail from Stanwood? You’re not going to beat that, making him the front-runner for the role as first captain in Kraken history.
Again, this is a new team, establishing itself in a new NHL market where some people know hockey very well while others care for it only casually if at all. Having a hometown name as captain is such a once-in-a-million fluke for a nontraditional expansion market. Besides, playing here could rejuvenate Oshie a bit, even if he never comes close to 25 goals again.
An even more likely candidate for a hometown rebound is Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson from the Spokane area. He had four goals and five assists in 20 games as of Friday and is on the books for three more years at a $5 million cap hit per annum. Johnson will be only 31 through all next season, about four years younger than Oshie.
Both have recent Stanley Cup wins. Johnson isn’t quite the captain material Oshie is, but he’s another rare, in-state local who can sell the team and might have brighter days ahead if given more ice time than the star-studded Lightning can spare.
Q: “So how do (you) like the idea of Buffalo doing a deal with our Kraken when the list of unprotected players comes out? Jack Eichel in a new environment? Fresh start?” — @JordanGussin
As we saw when the Vegas Golden Knights picked their team in 2017, side deals were a key component of GM George McPhee building a Stanley Cup finalist roster that first year.
That said, I’m not sure the Kraken will have pieces to do a Jack Eichel trade. This isn’t 2017 when few saw the Golden Knights coming, so Kraken GM Ron Francis won’t similarly be fleecing teams in a flurry of deals. And the Kraken would need to fleece teams to stockpile enough pieces to trade for Eichel without decimating their first-year roster.
Don’t forget, Eichel is still only 24 despite this being his sixth season. And before this season, when he had only two goals in 19 games as of Friday, he’d been a top-level performer as a coveted No. 1 center. You don’t just give those away and the Sabres aren’t trading him for a package of late-20s, early-30s guys the Kraken will mostly be landing off other teams’ unprotected lists.
If you’re the Sabres, you’ll want young talent in multiples — and not just guys with late-model birth certificates, but top prospects and mid-20s players who have actually done something at the NHL level. The expansion draft doesn’t lend itself to that. You’ll probably also need to package future draft picks, and the Kraken can’t start betting too many of theirs on a single guy who may or may not pan out as a superstar.
Yeah, Eichel is a top-line center with good years ahead of him the Kraken would love. I’m sure Kraken assistant GM Jason Botterill, the former Sabres GM through last season, is racking his brain thinking of a way to pull this off. But you know who else would want Eichel? Most other teams. Frankly, I don’t get the trade talk coming out of Buffalo.
Eichel had 36 goals and 42 assists last season in a pandemic-abbreviated 68 games. The Sabres should put a better team around him. Barring that, there will be ample clubs with more than the Kraken to offer.
Q: “Geoff I cannot support a league like the NHL that condones violence on the ice. I have NEVER heard of a white NHL player called ‘a thug.’ If an African American NBA/NFL player throws ONE punch, he is called ‘a thug’ on sports radio and by sports writers. These are facts Geoff.” — @gcurvey
Look, I’m not about to pretend the NHL has gone pacifist. Or, that Black players in the NBA and NFL haven’t been subjected to racially-tinged media labels like the one mentioned. I’ve also heard hockey players who throw punches called all sorts of things — mostly “goons” — regardless of color, though they were usually white because that’s how the sport has historically been.
But I will say the NHL doesn’t openly encourage violence like it once did by refusing to call penalties late in games, tolerating hits from behind and accepting roster spots being taken up by guys whose only skill was pugilistic. It’s a very different game now — especially with concussion awareness — than when I watched frequent bench-clearing brawls in the 1970s and 1980s growing up. Nowadays, entire games routinely lack a single fight.
That said, hockey and basketball are different. Hockey has bodychecking legislated within its rule book, where basketball — albeit a somewhat physical sport — stops play when there’s serious contact. At the speeds professional hockey players go on skates, surrounded by boards, it’s impossible to avoid big collisions.
And with constant checking, tempers flare. You’ll sometimes hear hockey players talk about fighting as a “release valve” to let off steam and avoid more serious on-ice violence like whacking a guy over the head with your stick. Or, blindsiding them jaw-first into the glass. Such things have happened in hockey with terrible results. So, the release-valve theory makes some sense.
I’ve always thought football players fighting was dumb. Throwing punches with all that equipment on is a great way to break your hand. That’s why football fights typically feature a lot of face mask grabbing — which is more annoying that hurtful when it’s done to somebody. Most football players quickly break fights up entirely on their own because unpadded referees want no part of it and everybody realizes how pointless it is. The game is violent enough by nature and doesn’t need help.