Inside the NHL
With the NHL draft recently completed, the countdown is on until the Kraken selects its team.
The NHL expansion draft is next summer, with Kraken general manager Ron Francis getting 30 picks of a player from each team, except from the most recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Teams can protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight skaters — forwards or defensemen — and a goalie.
But this experience won’t be anything Seattle sports fans have seen. Unlike prior expansion drafts decades ago involving our major professional teams, the Kraken has a shot at good players right away.
Also, the modern sports fan’s view of a good front office being one that spends “wisely” to maximize every penny won’t necessarily apply. Sure, nobody wants the Kraken building a bonfire out of owner David Bonderman’s money, but remember, the team has no existing contracts weighing it down and a lot of cash Francis must unload.
No joke. He really has to unload it. It says so right in the league’s rule book.
The Kraken must spend 60% to 100% of the most recent salary cap, which will likely be the same $81.5 million this coming season as last. So, they’ll need players earning well into the millions just to satisfy the basic rules.
Francis said Monday that ownership has approved spending toward the upper cap limit — on trades, free agents and players available within the draft itself — as long as they aren’t hamstrung in future years.
“We have to spend money and we’re looking to spend money,” Francis said.
That means contracts ordinarily considered “risky’’ or “bad’’ because of high salary won’t necessarily generate such fears for the Kraken.
“It’s certainly one possibility that you could take on what some teams determine to be bad contracts,” Francis said. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”
Francis said the Kraken still must spend “wisely” to avoid backloading too much salary for years they’ll need cap space to pay young entry draft picks and other prospects. They have ample space now, but that can quickly evaporate if Francis behaves like the kid in the proverbial candy store armed with Bonderman’s credit card.
“Certainly, in today’s world, cap space is extremely valuable, so we’ve got to be careful as we build things.”
Nevertheless, the NHL freezing its cap this coming season means teams previously expecting more room are scrambling to fit players within tighter confines. Which leaves the Kraken sitting pretty; the only team with 100% cap space available.
“We were looking at that $85 million, $86 million cap when we started,” Francis said. “So, there are some teams in that situation where the cap staying flat kind of affects their planning and they may have to do different things.”
Those “things” will inevitably involve offloading pricier players to the Kraken, who will likely oblige. After all, the Kraken is bound by both the rule book and common sense.
Ownership already spent $650 million just to acquire the franchise and likely $1 billion more to overhaul Climate Pledge Arena by the time that’s done. And recouping all that spent money will mean being competitive right away with established players.
Sure, the Kraken also wants up-and-comers to go with veterans. But the team can’t go too young — and it’s doubtful teams would expose many great young players to them — without falling short of minimum spending mandates.
So, forget “good” contracts for a second. The rules practically force the Kraken to secure some “name” players, costs be darned.
San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns is the type of player that could entice the Kraken, despite turning 36 next March and carrying a cap hit of $8 million. That’s usually a bright red flag for trades, but Burns would give the Kraken a bruising, all-star caliber defender and potential captain or alternate captain to nurture younger blue-liners while eating payroll that must be spent.
Also of importance, Burns doesn’t have a “no movement clause’’ in his contract. Teams must automatically protect players with such clauses in the draft.
Without one, Burns can be dangled as expansion bait.
Another potential Kraken target is Spokane native Tyler Johnson, 30, who just won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning and would be an obvious Kraken pick given his versatility and local marketability. Johnson is being squeezed out of Tampa as the Lightning struggle to fit rising young stars within cap limits.
The Lightning would love to shed Johnson’s $5 million cap hit, but his price tag reportedly frightened off teams he’d waive his no-trade clause for. Not so much the Kraken, who could pay that rate if Johnson sticks around Tampa another season and is exposed in the draft.
Or, the Kraken can pursue Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie of Stanwood, who’ll turn 35 their debut season at a cap hit of $5.75 million. While pricey, he’s also a local star and surefire first-team captain.
Another interesting development is percolating in Vancouver, where the Canucks just signed free agent Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. Young Canucks netminder Thatcher Demko so impressed his team during the recent playoffs they let incumbent goalie Jacob Markstrom depart in free agency.
Holtby, 31, was signed to a two-year, $8.6 million deal to help mentor Demko. But if they’re keeping Demko permanently, the Canucks can’t protect both next summer. And that leaves Holtby — who also lacks a no-movement clause — as an enticing potential Kraken pick despite his $4.3 million cap hit.
It won’t only be pricey 30-somethings the Kraken gets a shot at due to numbers crunching.
Under-30 players such as Carolina Hurricanes forward Jesper Fast, 28, just signed from the New York Rangers for $2 million annually, are in crowded positional fields and can’t all be protected. Same with Victor Mete, 22, a smallish but talented two-way defenseman earning just $735,000 with Montreal.
Anyhow, we’re likely at least a trade deadline away from true clarity emerging. But when it does, Francis will go from a GM that reportedly had to be tight with his wallet in Carolina to one practically forced to now openly flash his Kraken leather around.
“I’m very excited,” Francis said, “to see how this all shakes out.”
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