Inside the NHL

Around this time a year ago, one of the sillier media catchphrases surrounding the Kraken was about how general manager Ron Francis was positioned to “weaponize” his salary-cap space.

Every hockey writer west of Newfoundland, it seemed, was tossing the expression around in describing the enormous cap leverage Francis had been gifted and could use to pressure lopsided deals out of opposing teams. The cringeworthy cliché didn’t age particularly well, and not simply because it was a sports metaphor borrowing off the lethal menace of actual weapons.

No, it got old quick because the predicted Francis power play never actually happened. At least not until Friday, when Francis finally deployed his stockpiled cap leverage to squeeze a trade out of the Columbus Blue Jackets for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand that admittedly inflicted distress on opposing GM Jarmo Kekalainen.

Francis acquired a player whose 28 goals and 57 points last season were more than anybody had managed in a Kraken uniform. And he got Bjorkstrand effectively for nothing — a third- and a fourth-round draft pick and agreeing to take on four years, $21.6 million in salary from a Columbus team out of cap space. 

That’s the leverage everybody previously anticipated. Francis exploited the cap-busted Blue Jackets into giving up a potential 30-goal-man for the equivalent of Calle Jarnkrok and Mason Appleton — somewhat forgettable Kraken forwards whose March trades garnered those draft picks.

One reason the Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights had such huge advantages over previous NHL expansion teams wasn’t simply because of a better pool of players from which to select. No, it was also because those usually horrible expansion teams did not play in a salary-cap era and get to start building rosters from a zero balance sheet.

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The Kraken merely needed to meet minimum NHL payroll requirements against a cap of $81.5 million last season. They emerged from the July 2021 expansion draft with a whopping $29 million in leftover cap space and ample more for ensuing years. 

But where Francis was justifiably criticized was in not leveraging more of that massive space by agreeing before the expansion draft to select the costlier contracts of more proven players for future entry draft picks from other teams. Some suggested his asking prices were too high.

Forgetting such side deals, Francis could have merely risked picking such players outright for no compensation — hoping for at least short-term production before flipping them in trades if needed.

But Francis was loathe to risk cap space even on that, lest he be stuck with multiyear contracts nobody later wanted to acquire.

The outcome was far from perfect, given it deprived the Kraken of better immediate players and a needed buffer against injuries and plans going astray. They instead spent their debut season building up the trade value of a third of the roster before dealing those players for the future entry draft picks Francis failed to acquire in side deals the previous summer.

So even though Francis is now leveraging the cap space retained, the cost was a very “expansion like” opening season despite enormous Kraken advantages over most first-year predecessors. And it explains the pressure on Francis to get things right this summer to offset a first-impression belly flop that adversely impacted the Kraken’s relevance within a crowded local sports market.

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Francis has indeed made up for a lot, getting somewhat lucky at this month’s entry draft when Shane Wright tumbled to him at No. 4 overall. He then utilized both short- and longer-term cap space on the signing of free-agent winger Andre Burakovsky from the Colorado Avalanche and now — most important — a Bjorkstrand trade that significantly moves the near-term needle. 

All of a sudden, the Kraken can not only trot out a supposedly “NHL-ready” Wright and last year’s No. 2 overall pick Matty Beniers this fall. But they also appear ready to do more with the coming campaign than merely use it as a prospect training ground. 

This Bjorkstrand-infused Kraken roster now looks built to play .500 hockey all season and maybe surprise folks should luck break their way. 

Bjorkstrand might actually be the best player on that roster. He has put pucks behind goalies at the same frequent clip for four consecutive seasons regardless of whether the Blue Jackets were a contending or struggling team. The same couldn’t quite be said of streakier Burakovsky, signed from the defending Cup champion Avalanche to a five-year, $27.5 million deal.

Sure, Burakovsky has put up nearly as impressive numbers the past three seasons in mostly 5-on-5 action and not unduly inflated by power-play chances. 

But Joonas Donskoi a year ago was coming off a 17-goal season in 51 games with the Avs — only two goals fewer than Burakovsky that pandemic-shortened campaign. Donskoi then scored just twice in 75 games for the Kraken.

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So, there’s always a drop-off risk moving from elite teams to lesser ones.

But now, the Bjorkstrand trade increases the odds of the Kraken quickly reaping benefits from Burakovsky. By adding more good players to the same team, the pressure to produce gets spread around and an environment created for improved results.

Burakovsky alone might have been enough for significant offensive impact. But adding Bjorkstrand all but assures it.

Two weeks ago, the Kraken had Jared McCann as their biggest goal-scoring threat. Now they have three such players. Combined with Jordan Eberle and Yanni Gourde, they can unfurl two top lines in which five of six forwards scored at least 21 goals last season. 

Only 10 teams last season had five players with at least 21 goals. Six playoff teams didn’t have that many.

Not bad for a Kraken team initially built around defense and goaltending. Also, Bjorkstrand, Burakovsky and McCann, all 27 and younger, are signed for at least four seasons apiece. So they’ll be around as Beniers and Wright mature.

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As for this season, Jaden Schwartz suddenly could be a third-line guy. Brandon Tanev a fourth-liner. Ryan Donato, a 16-goal-man a season ago, might struggle to crack this lineup if brought back.

It’s one thing to build for the future. Quite another to do it while staying immediately relevant. Francis for now appears to have thread the proverbial needle on both. 

Not quickly enough to avoid last season’s debacle. But maybe just in time to help folks forget about it by focusing on a future that should get a whole lot better starting this October.