Barely a week after some expansion-draft selections that caught much of the hockey world off guard, the bigger picture is now taking shape for the Kraken in equally surprising fashion.
The Kraken was expected to splurge at Wednesday’s opening of the NHL free-agency period, but the team doing it on former Colorado Avalanche star netminder Philipp Grubauer again left jaws dropping leaguewide.
Signing Grubauer, 29, a Vezina Trophy finalist this past season, to a six-year, $34.5 million deal — the kind of money and term the team was expected to give a top-line forward or defenseman — came seemingly out of nowhere and continued an offseason of general manager Ron Francis zigging when observers expect him to zag.
“I think any GM will tell you that if you’ve got a goaltender that has that experience, you sleep a lot better at night,” Francis said in a call with media members Wednesday. “I don’t know if going into it we thought we’d get somebody like him. … But you never know what to expect, and we were fortunate to be able to act on it.”
Francis, as expected, signed former St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz, 29, for five years and $27.5 million. But he again surprised by opting for a lower-cost, higher-upside play on centerman Alexander Wennberg, 26, formerly of the Florida Panthers, signing him to a three-year, $13.5 million pact.
When the day was done, Francis had spent half his approximate $30 million in salary-cap space on the free-agent trio and traded goalie Vitek Vanecek, 25, back to his former Washington Capitals team for a 2023 second-round entry-draft pick after selecting him in last week’s expansion draft. And Francis had also tipped his hand somewhat as to the team’s strategy entering its first season: Acquiring players he hopes will provide similar production as other available top performers at their positions, but for less cap space or contract length.
Grubauer is the exception as the team’s biggest expenditure to date — his deal makes him the only Kraken player signed for six years. Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, 28, selected from Dallas in the expansion draft and signed to a five-year deal, is the only player other than Schwartz and Grubauer committed beyond four seasons.
Though there had been buzz weeks back about the Kraken possibly being interested in Grubauer — who went 30-9-1 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .922 save percentage last season in leading Colorado to the league’s top record — few lately had given it much thought. That included Francis, who couldn’t even begin discussions with the goalie’s camp until early Wednesday after the Avalanche protected Grubauer in the expansion draft.
The Kraken had used an exclusive 72-hour, pre-draft negotiation window to open talks with Grubauer’s now-former Colorado teammate, Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. But Landeskog re-signed with Colorado on Tuesday night, prompting talks to stall with Grubauer amid concerns the Avalanche couldn’t lock up both players long term.
“I don’t think we expected Grubauer to get to free agency,” Francis said. “They signed Landeskog, and we figured he (Grubauer) would get signed as well. But he didn’t and made it to free agency, and that’s when we had discussions, and we were fortunate enough to get him signed.”
Grubauer takes over the No. 1 goaltending job in a tandem with Chris Driedger, 27, who was to fill the top role but is now a backup. Though Grubauer started more than 70% of Colorado’s games last season — largely due to an early injury to backup Pavel Francouz and the inexperience of his replacement, Hunter Miska — Francis expects a more regulated workload to come.
“When we look at our schedule, the back-to-back games, the travel from West Coast to East Coast a lot of times, we think we needed two guys,” he said. “We think both guys will play. I don’t want to speak for (coach Dave Hakstol), he’s got final say. But I would assume Grubauer is not playing 70 (%) this year, and Driedger would play a lot more of those games.”
In acquiring Grubauer (1.95, 2nd) and Driedger (2.07, 5th), the Kraken has two of last season’s top five goaltenders in goals-against average with a minimum of 19 games played.
The Kraken has $9.4 million in cap space — 11.5% of the $81.5 million upper limit — tied up in its goaltending tandem for the next three seasons. Still, that’s less money than Francis would have committed to Montreal Canadiens star goalie Carey Price if he had selected him in the expansion draft.
Also, Driedger and Vanecek have just 70 combined career starts, whereas Grubauer has 187 from his time with the Avalanche and Capitals.
And Francis, through his expansion-draft and free-agency approach, has saved some cap space in acquiring production for other areas.
Former 20-goal scorer Schwartz is similar in point-per-game production and three years younger than Philadelphia Flyers left wing James van Riemsdyk, 32, who is under contract only two additional seasons but earns $1.5 million more annually against the salary cap. Schwartz and the Flyers’ forward, whom the Kraken passed on in the expansion draft, will both be age 34 when their deals expire but the Kraken hope to get more seasons of younger production at the cheaper rate out of the guy they took.
Schwartz has some experience with Seattle, where his parents came over from Saskatchewan to live for a year after his sister, Mandi, a college hockey player, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Though she eventually died from the illness in April 2011 at age 23, she had come here a couple of years prior with her parents for medical treatments, and Schwartz paid periodic visits as she received chemotherapy and blood transplants.
Despite the family’s ordeal, he came away with a positive impression of the city that played into his decision to accept the Kraken’s offer.
“I was able to go up there and see the city and I really liked it,” he said. “I thought it was very nice, and the people that we met were great.”
As for center Wennberg, he lacked the same stature as Montreal centerman Phillip Danault, 28, considered by many the best available free-agent center due to his shutdown defensive abilities. Danault, as expected, got a significant contract Wednesday, signing for six years and $33 million with the Los Angeles Kings.
But Swedish native Wennberg, who is two years younger, also plays solid two-way hockey — though not as dominantly as Danault — and has produced slightly better career offensive numbers. Wennberg scored 17 goals last season in a bit of a breakout year with the Panthers.
Francis now has six players — Wennberg, Jared McCann, Calle Jarnkrok, Mason Appleton, Nathan Bastian and Morgan Geekie — in addition to the injured Yanni Gourde, that can play center and give Hakstol options.
And though many consider Danault a second- or third-line center because of his lack of offense, Francis envisions Wennberg seeing “top-six” minutes on the team’s first or second line.
The difference is, the Kraken is paying Wennberg $2 million less per season than Danault and for only half as many years.
“I think he’s a smart player,” Francis said. “I think he can play in all three zones. He can kill penalties. He’s got the skill set to play on the power play. So hopefully last year was just a start for him and he can continue to get better from there moving forward.”
Francis said he’s not done. The Kraken didn’t land a power-play quarterback on defense — Dougie Hamilton went to New Jersey, and Tyson Barrie stayed with Edmonton — and could probably use at least one more proven scorer.
But after one of the busier days of any NHL team, Francis and company has almost certainly shored-up the Kraken’s goal-scoring and definitely its goal prevention.