A busy Kraken start to the opening of the NHL free-agency period didn’t land the big names some expected, but created “opportunity” general manager Ron Francis hopes newcomers take advantage of.
Wednesday’s foray into free agency was headlined by Francis signing Colorado Avalanche left wing Andre Burakovsky to a five-year, $27.5 million deal. Francis also added Washington Capitals free agent defenseman Justin Schultz for two years, $6 million, and hopes both players can bolster a Kraken power play among the league’s worst last season.
The Kraken also signed Philadelphia Flyers goalie Martin Jones for one-year, $2 million to serve as Philipp Grubauer’s backup while Chris Driedger recovers from knee surgery. By day’s end, Francis had also inked top draft pick Shane Wright to a three-year, entry-level deal and spoke of the need to keep an eye on bigger payouts likely coming for him and fellow centerman Matty Beniers down the road.
“There are a lot of intangibles that sort of go into it,” Francis said of his free-agent decisions. “At the end of the day, you try and make the best decision for your team now but also in the future. With those two young centermen coming, Matty’s contract is going to be up in two years, and Shane Wright’s contract is going to be up in three years.
“So, we’re making sure we don’t box ourselves in a corner. And having the cap flexibility to pay those guys moving forward is important as well.”
Francis admitted the surprise windfall of landing Wright at No. 4 overall in the draft after he’d tumbled from a projected No. 1 changed the team’s free-agency approach. The Kraken was linked to Colorado center Nazem Kadri, 31, since the playoffs ended, but with Beniers and Wright set to get NHL looks at the position, the Kraken shifted their forward targets.
They were believed to have had serious interest in Calgary Flames free-agent left wing Johnny Gaudreau, 28, who notched 115 points last season, but he signed with Columbus. Gaudreau’s seven-year contract at $9.75 million annually was for less than many expected and reportedly less than the Flames offered.
Francis didn’t deny interest in Gaudreau: “Sometimes, players want to play in certain markets or closer to home or different things. So, there are a lot of factors that kind of go into those final decisions.”
So, instead of a bigger Gaudreau splash, he bolstered the wing with two-time Stanley Cup winner Burakovsky, who tallied a career-high 22 goals and 61 points last season. The Austrian native played a key role for Colorado in last month’s Cup Final, scoring twice the first two games and adding an assist in eventual Avalanche victories that gave them a series lead they never relinquished.
He injured his hand in Game 2 and was sidelined the final four games of the series. Burakovsky also won a Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018 and teamed with goalie Grubauer there and with the Avalanche.
“When you look at our lineup, certainly an area we think we need to improve on is the power play,” Francis said. “And this is a guy that we think can step in, come down the downhill side off the wing and he’s got that great shot. He’s also got good vision to make plays. So, we think he’ll get more of an opportunity with us in that role than he did in Colorado and hopefully, with his talents, he can produce. And that’s a big part for us.”
The Kraken had cleared their roster Monday of another heavy shot in Daniel Sprong, a restricted free-agent winger used heavily on the power play down the stretch. They also shed Ryan Donato, a restricted free agent whose 16 goals last season weren’t much fewer than Burakovsky’s total.
Francis said Donato being arbitration eligible was a factor and the team didn’t want to risk him getting an award higher than it was willing to pay. While Francis said he’d be willing to bring Donato back at the right price, that’s out of the team’s hands. So, despite Burakovsky likely being better than any winger the Kraken had, it remains to be seen how much of a true difference maker he’ll be on a team that struggled to score throughout its debut campaign.
Francis did not rule out future moves.
The CapFriendly website estimates the Kraken have about $10.6 million in salary cap space left after all the day’s moves were factored in. The Kraken also added former Kontinental Hockey League netminder Magnus Hellberg, 31, to a one-year, $750,000 contract that gives them options, along with Joey Daccord, as a third goalie as long as Driedger remains out.
The team still has restricted free agents Morgan Geekie, Kole Lind, Cale Fleury and Carsen Twarynski left to sign.
The Kraken had also been in the market for a right-handed defender with puck-moving skills and were expected to pursue Dallas Stars blueliner John Klingberg — considered the best defenseman on the free-agent market. While Klingberg remained unsigned Wednesday, the Kraken did a shorter-term deal with Schultz, who combined for 50 points his last two seasons with the Caps.
Schultz, a two-time Cup champion with Washington and Pittsburgh, had 12 goals and a 51-point season with the Penguins in 2016-17 at a time Kraken assistant general manager Jason Botterill was in an identical position with that franchise.
“We’re still looking and talking, and we’ll see what things happen,” Francis said when asked whether Schultz filled the right-handed defense need.
Francis said Schultz was talented, but previously stuck behind Kris Letang on the Penguins’ power play and later John Carlson on Washington’s unit.
“We’re excited and he’ll have that opportunity, certainly,” Francis said. “He’s a solid, puck-moving D and another addition to hopefully the power play being better.”
And the ability of Wednesday’s additions to seize such opportunities will likewise show how much Francis made of his own chances to upgrade his second year squad.