The Kraken had to know they were going to face comparisons to the other recent NHL expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, all season.
Even while the Knights have struggled to start this season, they found themselves in the news again Thursday when they traded for Jack Eichel, the former captain and No. 1 overall draft selection of the Buffalo Sabres, the team the Kraken played Thursday.
The Eichel saga was long and drawn out; one of the top prospects in the league at Boston University, the Sabres drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015. With 355 points in 375 career games in six years, he was the face of a rebuilding franchise that never built toward any level of success. When he was injured, his future seemed over in Buffalo.
Eichel wanted a specific surgery to treat his herniated disc in his back, and the Sabres insisted on a fusion surgery, which created an unmendable relationship and a trade was imminent. Until early Thursday, the Sabres had been deep into talks with the Calgary Flames, but preferred the package offered by the Golden Knights.
Eichel probably won’t be ready to play until the playoffs. The Golden Knights also have a lot of salary cap issues to figure out.
But that’s the thing about the Golden Knights that makes them unique. A new team in the league, they easily could have built slowly in a league where teams often don’t do anything risky. Instead, Vegas has consistently been in the conversation of every single major transaction in the NHL since their inception.
Perhaps some of that is the expectations they created for themselves by going to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, but they made moves to make that happen in the first place. They had the advantage of an expansion process that seemingly took other league execs off guard, and they built a team with almost no drafting or developing, but leeching off other clubs desperate to dump their own hefty deals.
Like the Tampa Bay Lightning did last season in their consecutive Cup win, the Golden Knights have found a way for the cap to be a non-concern, and they’ve been rewarded with one of the elite top six forward groups the league has seen in the past decade. There’s no promise they’ll win, but they’ve already done more as an expansion club than some teams decades older have even attempted. No team has capitalized on value more aggressively than the Knights, sending off assets like expansion picks gifted to them and other prospects made available to them by shipping away players other teams overvalued.
“If and when (the cap) poses a challenge for us, we’ll address it at that time,” Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon said. “All things considered we’re happy to have Jack Eichel as part of our organization and prepared to deal with that if need be.”
It’s interesting to juxtapose that with the Kraken, a team in its first season that has valued salary-cap space even with the opportunity to make huge moves. Carey Price was available to them, as were Vladamir Tarasenko and James Van Reimsdyk and all sorts of high-priced players.
They committed a lot of money to Philipp Grubauer as a free agent and brought in Jaden Schwartz as well, but they haven’t committed to any big-money, high-end players in the way the Golden Knights have. Their aggressive approach has given them a level of success that doesn’t happen for modern expansion franchises across major men’s sports.
That’s not to say the Kraken’s approach is automatically wrong. The Kraken have only played 11 games, and it’s only November of their first season and the Knights are in their fifth. It is wild just to look at the way the Knights have built their roster — trades for Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Eichel — and the Kraken’s less urgent, more patient approach to building.
If it doesn’t work for Vegas, in a copycat league, perhaps teams become more hesitant. If it does work, maybe that influences the Kraken at some point. There’s a lot of time left to find out.
The Kraken have three former Sabres players but just one got his revenge game in the season-wide tour. Riley Sheahan played just one year with the Sabres and signed with the Kraken in free agency.
“I had a blast with those guys,” said Sheahan. “Obviously that season didn’t pan out the way we wanted it to, and it was a lot of ups and downs, but that’s a great group of guys in there.”
Will Borgen was Seattle’s expansion pick from the Sabres, but the defenseman hasn’t gotten into a game yet this season. Marcus Johansson also formerly played in Buffalo, but has missed every game since opening night with an undisclosed injury and has only recently begun skating again.