Kraken scout Mike Dawson remembers watching among standing-room-only crowds of 3,250 in the distant Montreal suburb of Boisbriand as a beanpole center named Luke Henman broke in full time with the first-place local junior team.
Henman, now 21 and announced Wednesday as the NHL expansion franchise Kraken’s first player signing, barely topped 150 pounds on his 6-foot frame during that 2017-18 season. Yet for Dawson, back then a Carolina Hurricanes scout, the Nova Scotia teen seemed to grow with every shift in helping his Blainville-Boisbriand Armada challenge for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship.
He’d use “timing and quickness” to outsmart far bigger foes in one-on-one puck battles, read forechecks and anticipate plays instead of reacting as junior players so often did.
And his then-coach, current American Hockey League bench boss Joel Bouchard, kept putting Henman out there for every power play and penalty kill for a stacked Armada team that included future NHL talents Pierre-Luc Dubois and Drake Batherson.
“What initially attracted me to him was I thought he had an elite hockey sense,” Dawson said after the Kraken announced it had signed Henman to a three-year entry-level contract. “He was just really, really skinny, and I was impressed at how much he was able to accomplish.”
Dawson convinced the Hurricanes to use a fourth-round pick on Henman in the 2018 NHL entry draft, hoping some muscle and weight gain would lead to an undiscovered gem. And when the Hurricanes failed to sign Henman by this spring, Dawson, hired by the Kraken last October, made the same sales pitch to his new team, adding that his past two seasons as the Armada’s captain had only bettered the talent already evident.
“It’s just the intangibles, his leadership and the ability to understand what’s going on at the time and how he’s going to help his team,” Dawson said.
That leadership was especially tested this past season, when 18 members of the Armada — including Henman — were stricken in October by COVID-19. Henman experienced cold sweats and other symptoms but recovered as the league temporarily halted play.
As the Armada’s captain, it fell to Henman to help move his team forward. He had 16 goals and 27 assists in what became just a 32-game schedule replete with aborts and restarts, bubble zones and open arena play alike. And the Armada, despite its tribulations, made the playoffs, where Henman has added six more goals and two assists in seven contests.
“It was a difficult year for everyone,” Henman said in a local media conference call Wednesday with his Armada trailing Victoriaville 2-1 in their best-of-seven QMJHL playoff series. “A lot more staying in hotels with these bubbles. A lot more stops and starts and quarantines and stuff like that.
“So it’s been difficult, and it’s been a grind. But to have this news come today is a dream come true.”
Henman’s performance under duress this season likely tipped things in his favor, with Kraken general manager Ron Francis citing reports on him being a “quality character individual” playing as big a role as any. During internal Kraken meetings, Francis has long preached the need for strong character hires in all departments when it comes to building the organization.
“It’s always easy when things are going well, but when things are tough it’s the guys with the character that’ll be able to pull you out of those tough situations,” Francis said. “Everybody we talked to and checked him out with said his character was outstanding.”
Francis had already left the Hurricanes two months before they drafted Henman. But plenty of Kraken voices now praising Henman to Francis were with Carolina at the time, including Dawson, scouting adviser Tony MacDonald and amateur scouting director Robert Kron.
“We thought we’d have a kid that has high upside with value down the road,” Kron said of the Hurricanes’ draft decision. “And I still believe there is because of the way he performed this year, in a difficult pandemic year and the leadership he showed. And it can only get better, because he works extremely hard. He might be a late bloomer physically, but I think at some point he’ll get better.”
Although the Hurricanes may have tired waiting for Henman — who topped out at around 175 pounds this season — to get bigger, Kron feels his body is just maturing late and that Kraken performance consultant Gary Roberts can put “some meat on his bones” through a workout and nutritional regimen.
Henman, in mentioning how “honored” he was at being the named the franchise’s first player, admitted getting “bigger and stronger” will be key to making a professional jump.
“I have a lot of belief in my game,” he said. “I know that I can contribute at the next level.”
No one from the Kraken knows whether Henman will ever wear its uniform. Indeed, even with a strong rookie camp come September he’ll still be ticketed for the minors. But the team does have enough faith to make him what’s likely to be the Kraken’s lone junior player signing before the July 21 expansion draft.
For now, he’s organizational depth up the crucial middle of the ice as Francis tries to lock down where his minor-leaguers will spend next season. The Kraken’s AHL team in Palm Springs, California, won’t launch until late 2022, so Francis will soon finalize a farm team sharing agreement with another NHL team.
It would give the Kraken about eight to 12 spots for minor-leaguers — instead of the usual 22 or 23 it eventually will have. Those limited spots below the 23-man NHL roster mean the Kraken is being selective with smaller-scale signings for now.
The team still has 30 players to pick in the expansion draft, plus more in the July 23-24 entry draft, then unrestricted NHL free-agent signings.
So, it had to be confident Henman has what it takes to leave an outsized impact. He plans to not disappoint them.
“There are a few morals I live by being a hockey player,” Henman said. “To compete hard every day, be a good teammate and a likable person. If you can do that, good things will happen.”