Just when you thought the NHL was out of COVID-19 trouble came news this past week when the Montreal Canadiens had a player test positive for a variant, sidelining the team at least a week and causing consternation throughout a North Division relatively unscathed by pandemic postponements until now.

The Buffalo Sabres also had interim coach Don Granato, brother of Hall of Famer and Kraken pro scout Cammi Granato, placed in COVID-19 protocol along with assistant Matt Ellis — forcing general manager Kevyn Adams behind the bench.

This is why I’m hesitant to respond to questions about the Kraken opening their arena fully to fans next fall. Sure, the Mariners have their reduced 9,000-capacity home opener April 1 at T-Mobile Park, and things generally seem more optimistic. But as long as variant strains remain, as do troublesome case trends in parts of Washington and elsewhere, I’ll resist proclaiming anything.

It’s best that everyone keep masking up and avoiding close, unnecessary contact with others until we get a better handle on things as a state and country. That’s the surest way to help Climate Pledge Arena fully open in October.

Now, on to your mailbag questions.

Q: From @CelestialMosh: For us dummies, would you mind expanding on how the Golden Knights ended up with multiple 1st round picks in the entry draft? And is there a chance the Kraken may end up with a few picks as well??

A: Well, the Kraken has at least one entry draft first-rounder no lower than No. 5 overall. Will it manage three first-round choices like the Golden Knights in 2017? Depends on any possible side deals by Kraken general manager Ron Francis.

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Though the Golden Knights fared poorly in their draft lottery and picked a worst-possible sixth overall — taking still-developing center Cody Glass — they also landed two more first-rounders through side deals for the No. 13 and No. 15 selections.

The No. 13 pick — used on center Nick Suzuki — came from the Winnipeg Jets in a deal that saw the Knights agree not to select Toby Enstrom or Marko Dano in the expansion draft and instead take pending free agent Chris Thorburn. The Knights also got a third-rounder in 2019 and gave Winnipeg a 24th overall selection in 2017 acquired from Columbus in a deal.

That Columbus deal, incidentally, saw Vegas land not only that pick, but also stud center William Karlsson and a second-rounder in 2019. All so Vegas wouldn’t take winger Josh Anderson or other key players such as defenseman Jack Johnson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo. Korpisalo emerged as the Blue Jackets’ top netminder, but Anderson now plays for Montreal and Johnson for the New York Rangers.

The deal is still considered among the bigger fleece jobs Vegas pulled off.

As for Suzuki, he was traded to Montreal by Vegas a year later with Tomas Tatar and a second-round 2019 pick for Canadiens captain Max Pacioretti. 

The No. 15 pick from 2017 was used on Swedish defenseman Erik Brannstrom and acquired previously from the New York Islanders. Vegas agreed to take expendable Islanders goalie Jean-Francois Berube in the expansion draft while receiving the No. 15 pick, a second-rounder in 2019, defensive prospect Jake Bischoff and veteran Mikhail Grabovski. Islanders GM Garth Snow made the deal for salary-cap reasons — shedding Grabovski’s $5 million salary — and to protect young players such as Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Strome.

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Brannstrom was flipped by the Knights in 2019 to Ottawa in a package for Mark Stone. Considering Stone and Pacioretti are now Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring for the contending Knights, the 2017 draft keeps paying dividends. 

Ultimately, I don’t see Francis landing three first-rounders. I think GMs learned their lessons from 2017 and will be more willing to absorb losing one good player over packaging multiple guys and top picks.

Q: From @CHWorldTour: Being a new team, Are the Kraken likely to dish out any big contracts right from the beginning?

A: Yes, by design. Remember, the salary cap is frozen at $81.5 million due to the pandemic, and teams that previously assumed they’d have more cap space will be dumping contracts. Unlike all other teams, the Kraken’s payroll balance sheet stands at zero.

NHL rules require the Kraken to take cap hits totaling at least 60% of the $81.5 million limit with its 30 expansion draft players chosen. That’s at least $48.9 million spread 30 ways, averaging $1.63 million annually per player. But remember, that’s just the average. Some players taken will be well below that figure, and more expensive ones needed to reach $48.9 million.

Also, pending unrestricted free agents can count as a team’s relinquished draft pick. Those left unprotected have a 48-hour window ahead of the draft to negotiate with the Kraken. If a deal is done, it counts as that team’s relinquished pick.

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I’d expect the Kraken to spend bigger on such free agents. The team has money, needs to spend it as per the rules, and opponents pushing cap limits will be looking to shed payroll with talented players. Just going the cost-effective route won’t get you to the minimum and would likely yield just a bunch of average players and a boring team.

Q: From @NicfromO: Seriously when can I get an official NHL Seattle Kraken jersey? I have been looking for months and months. It’s all I think about

A: I’m concerned this is all you think about, but I suppose the pandemic has us all a bit restless. Some days all I think about is buying hockey cards online. Anyway, you’ll hopefully have your COVID-19 vaccine before the team sells jerseys, as I’m told the plan is to reveal them this summer about two months before the season opener. So likely in August.

You’ve already seen team renderings of what jerseys could look like. I’m told the actual jerseys should look similar. And we’re just talking home and away jerseys right now. Alternates won’t happen until at least the team’s second or third season — considering everything released in August will be “alternate” to what currently exists, which, as you’ve lamented, is absolutely nothing.

Q: From @rjarnoldsafe: With the Tim Peel situation this week, what are your thoughts on refs calling the game strictly by the rules vs managing the game flow a bit?

Yeah, the Peel firing after being caught on a hot mic admitting to a “makeup” call is a big problem. Look, everyone knows NHL referees have played by unwritten rules forever when calling and not calling penalties. Used to be you’d pretty much have to hospitalize somebody to get called in the final 10 minutes of a game, or third period of a playoff contest. Fortunately, the league has largely eradicated that by mandating officials make calls the same way regardless of the game’s juncture.

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And the outcome is probably more legit now. I showed a video of a classic Islanders-Rangers decisive playoff game from 1984 in this space two weeks ago — considered some of the greatest overtime action in NHL history — in which Isles grinder John Tonelli blatantly trips Rangers defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen as he tries to clear the puck out of his zone. The puck stayed in and, two shots later, the defending champion Islanders had a series-clinching goal by Ken Morrow. The trip likely gets called today. 

The other problem of “makeup” calls by refs, which got Peel in trouble, has been around just as long as late-game “whistle in the pocket” issues. Sure, there’s a level of fairness to it. But it’s too arbitrary. With the NHL now partnering with sports-gambling interests, there’s even more responsibility to protect the game’s integrity.

We went through this 14 years ago with NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who admitted to betting on games he’d worked and served 15 months in prison for accepting money for providing gamblers inside information. It was never proven Donaghy actually “fixed” games, though an ESPN investigative story two years ago heavily suggested it. 

No one has accused Peel of anything gambling-related. But as with Donaghy, he’s another reminder that referees have absolute control. Though a hockey penalty might not result in a power-play goal, it certainly can shift momentum. And when you’re dealing with point spreads, even a subtle momentum swing that causes a team to win by just a goal instead of two can have huge implications.

You asked about “flow” of games. Well, the Islanders-Rangers overtime sure had flow, which I’ll always prefer to incessant stoppages. But a classic game ended because of a non-called penalty. You hate to see that.

But I don’t want cheap penalties stopping play, either. The Peel call was a cheapie — admittedly invented out of nowhere. There’s a happy medium someplace that involves the world’s best officials figuring out how to properly call the obvious stuff without looking for everything on the fringes.