OK Seattle Kraken, whadaya got? Is it going to be Viva Las Vegas time in the Pacific Northwest, or did we just go bust after hitting on a hard 16?
The dust has settled on last week’s expansion draft, the free agency tidal wave has passed, and we now have a pretty good idea of what the Kraken, the NHL’s newest franchise, will look like when they begin play in October. That leaves everyone asking one question:
Are these Kraken as good as Vegas was?
The Vegas Golden Knights, who joined the NHL as an expansion team in 2017, emerged from their expansion draft with a team that won 51 games, finished first in the Pacific Division and advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final. The Golden Knights blew up the expansion playbook and set a new standard for what expansion teams in major professional sports can achieve.
Given Seattle operated under the exact same expansion draft rules as Vegas, the expectation in Krakenland has always been that Seattle could be something similar. So is the roster Seattle general manager Ron Francis assembled capable of following in Vegas’ footsteps and being an immediate contender?
It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
I think Seattle should be pretty good. Up front the team is nothing special, but Wednesday’s free-agent signings of Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Wennberg, along with expansion draft selections Yanni Gourde, Jordan Eberle and Jared McCann, give the Kraken just enough firepower up front to keep opposition defenses honest. Defensively the team looks solid with a top four of Mark Giordano, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak and Vince Dunn. And the goaltending is top-notch with Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer paired with the up-and-coming Chris Driedger. This is a roster that will win games, especially in a Pacific Division filled with teams at various stages of the rebuilding process.
But although Seattle and Vegas built expansion teams that look similar on paper, the way they went about it was starkly different.
Seattle augmented its team through free agency. Before the expansion draft Francis talked about the value of salary-cap space. Well, he’s spent a lot of it. The Kraken signed three unrestricted free agents prior to last week’s expansion draft (Driedger, Larsson, Oleksiak) and added three on Wednesday’s first day of free agency (Grubauer, Schwartz, Wennberg).
This is unprecedented. Unrestricted free agents who warrant interest around the league don’t sign with expansion teams, because why would anyone who has choices sign on with a team starting from scratch? Look at Vegas in 2017. The only NHL UFA the Golden Knights were able to land was defenseman Deryk Engelland, and that was because he was a 35-year-old journeyman who wasn’t wasn’t in demand and happened to reside in Las Vegas.
But Vegas’ incredible success as an expansion franchise showed players what’s possible, and they clearly are no longer averse to joining a first-year team. Seattle can thank the Golden Knights for that. And while Seattle may have overpaid a bit for some of their UFAs, prioritizing cap space gave Francis the ability to do that.
Vegas, on the other hand, was built through side deals. The Golden Knights made a slew of side deals during their expansion draft, both to lay off specific unprotected players and to provide salary-cap relief to other teams by taking on troublesome contracts. Thanks to those moves Vegas ended up netting eight additional draft picks, including two first-rounders and four seconds, as well as four prospects, two of whom (defenseman Shea Theodore and winger Alex Tuch) were major contributors to the expansion season and remain high-impact players for the Golden Knights today. Not a bad war chest to begin a franchise with.
And those side deals? Some of Vegas’ best players (the first line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in particular) were selected specifically so the Golden Knights wouldn’t pick other players.
The Kraken? They didn’t make a single side deal during their expansion draft. Some have blamed Francis for holding out for too much. Personally, I give credit to the league’s other general managers, who learned from the mistakes of 2017 and chose not to repeat them.
One could claim that it’s a wash, that although Seattle and Vegas took different paths, they ended up in the same spot. But there are two things that give me pause, preventing me from saying the Kraken are going to be as good as the Golden Knights.
The first is age. Vegas’ opening-night lineup in 2017 had an average age of 26.95. That doesn’t include the then-22-year-old Theodore and then-21-year-old Tuch, who weren’t in the lineup that night. Seattle’s projected opening-night lineup has an average age of 27.70, nearly a full year older. That means there’s much less chance of Seattle players breaking out in a big way, the way Karlsson did when he jumped from six goals as a 24-year-old with Columbus to 43 goals as a 25-year-old with Vegas.
The second is assets. All the additional draft picks and prospects Vegas acquired during the expansion draft gave the Golden Knights the kind of stash with which they could dramatically improve their team. Vegas didn’t do a lot of trading that first season. But one of those first rounders the Golden Knights acquired during the expansion draft was used on a player (Nick Suzuki) who was the centerpiece of the trade that brought in Max Pacioretty the following year, and the other acquired first rounder was used on a player (Erik Brannstrom) who was the main piece in the deal that netted Mark Stone two years later. Those two are now the wingers on one of the league’s best lines.
So while Seattle’s and Vegas’ initial teams may be similar in ability, the Kraken roster may not have the same growth potential, and Seattle definitely doesn’t have the same kind of resources available to continue upgrading their roster the way Vegas did. Francis is going to have to work a lot harder — or get a lot luckier — to turn Seattle into a perennial contender the way Vegas has been in its first four seasons.
So my suggestion: Be excited about this Kraken team. It’s going to be competitive right out of the gate, and in what’s expected to be a weaker division Seattle could be a playoff team.
But make sure to temper your expectations. Vegas caught lightning in a bottle, with the rest of the league working blind with the new expansion rules. The league was better prepared this time around, so it isn’t fair to expect the Kraken to match the Golden Knights’ accomplishments.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.