Does Seattle have a competitive roster right out of the gate? Or do Kraken fans need to exercise some patience out of the gates? (@SeattleKraken/Twitter)

What’s A Realistic Year One Goal For The Seattle Kraken? 2021 NHL Previews

Long before the Kraken became even an idea, in the both not-so and incredibly distant past of the 2017-18 winter season, much like life itself, there were two constants in the world of sports. Sixteen seeds would never beat a one in March Madness. And expansion teams in professional sports were doomed to be bad out of the gate. Well, as long as the league’s structure allows the possibility. The degree of how bad was up for grabs; you could be historically bad like the 8-74-5 1974-75 Washington Capitals. Or you could be kinda decent, like the 83-point 1993-94 Florida Panthers, who missed the playoffs by just one point. Of course, they still missed the playoffs, a major four sports ritual for a franchise’s inaugural season. We don’t make the rules, we just let them play out the same way time and time again.

Then the sports world went bonkers for a few months. On March 16, 2018, the University of Baltimore-Maryland County Retrievers stunned the Virginia Cavaliers with a 73-53 rout, becoming the first #16 seed to win a non-first four NCAA tournament contest. Just ten days later, the unthinkable happened again, this time on ice instead of hardwood. With a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, the Vegas Golden Knights officially qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a dream season for first-year Vegas; they not only reached the playoffs but went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, capping off the best inaugural year in league history. Good luck following that act.

That honor, of course, goes to the Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s 32nd and newest team who will take the ice for the first time in just under a month. Seattle was the talk of the league during the expansion draft back in late July, which earned mixed reviews. They stayed active early into free agency, signing three of the sixteen most expensive contracts by AAV on July 28. General manager Ron Francis even made a few semi-noteworthy trades as well. The Kraken did it all this summer, but that doesn’t guarantee success. However, there will be some out there clouded by Vegas success and expecting Seattle to produce more of the same. Evaluating the Kraken’s inaugural team isn’t just about the 20-23 man roster; it’s about charting a course for the franchise to follow for their first few years of existence.

Forwards

Jaden SchwartzAlexander WennbergJordan Eberle
Jared McCannCalle JarnkrökJoonas Donskoi
Brandon TanevMorgan GeekieMason Appleton
Marcus JohanssonNathan BastianColin Blackwell

The way the current NHL expansion draft criteria is set up, you’d expect a team to have a weaker offense than defense. Most teams chose to protect seven forwards, which is 58.3% of their overall twelve-player forward group, and three defensemen, 50% of their six-man unit. You can’t argue with the math; and even if you wanted to, I think most fans would agree that the vast majority of the team’s fourth-best defenseman is better than their eight-best forward. There are outliers, of course. And this math ignores the fact that some teams didn’t need to protect one of their seven best forwards or three best defensemen because they were young enough to be exempt. But overall, the point still stands.

Considering that centers are more valuable than wingers, it also shouldn’t be a surprise that Seattle’s biggest weakness is down the middle. That’s despite adding a center during free agency in Wennberg. It’s worth noting that this projection doesn’t include Yanni Gourde, leader of Tampa Bay’s vaunted shut-down line that helped get the Lightning over the top the last two years. That’s because he’s out until about December after undergoing shoulder surgery. His return will help, but this unit is Seattle’s weakest. In a league where an elite first-line center is almost a pre-requisite for a deep run, Seattle’s top three centers when healthy have just one 60-point season under their belts. That was from Gourde back in 2017-18. Jarnkrök has never even cracked the 40-point mark; although he was on pace to do so each of the last two seasons.

Gourde and Jarnkrök should be solid for Seattle. Gourde may not be an elite 1C, but he’s still a quality player who will chip at about a 20 goal and 50 point pace while also killing penalties. Bringing a couple of Cup rings into the dressing room can also be a powerful influence. Jarnkrök can play center or the wing, chips in some offense, and has some of those William Karlsson vibes where you if he could do more in a consistent top-six role. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not projected a 43-goal season for Jarnkrök. But he should be a solid contributor for the Kraken, as long as he gets that chance.

Wennberg, on the other hand, is a bit of a red flag. After scoring 59 points in 2016-17, he wasn’t more than a bottom-sixer the next three years in Columbus before being bought out last summer. On the surface, Wennberg had a huge bounce-back last year, scoring 29 points in 56 games for Florida. However, that was largely driven by a 17-goal season that came from an unsustainable 20.7% shooting. Wennberg has always been a pass-first player; so to see him score 17 goals to 12 assists raises an eyebrow or two.

If Wennberg shot at his career average (9.7%), he would’ve scored 8 goals and 20 points last year. The same goes for his underlying numbers; they look good on the surface, but he was negative 5% relative to his teammates in Expected Goals and slightly negative by Corsi and On-Ice Goals For. That’s just not worth $4.5 million, even for a center. After side-stepping so many bad contracts in the expansion draft, Seattle might still have one of their hands here.

Behind them are a pair of youngsters in Morgan Geekie and maybe Nathan Bastian, though he’s mostly played wing. Geekie’s got some potential; he put up really good numbers in the AHL the last two years, and I think he can be at least a solid 3C if his sneaky skill translates to the NHL. Bastian is a tenacious forechecker that I think will become a solid fourth-liner, if he isn’t already. Colin Blackwell can also play some center; the 28-year old was practically unheard of last year when he made the most of the chance to play with some of the Rangers’ big guns and scored 22 points in 47 games. For reference, he had 10 career points in 33 games with Nashville spread out over two seasons.

Seattle’s free-agent addition at wing, Jaden Schwartz, also carries some risk but is a better bet than Wennberg in my opinion. Last year was the perfect storm of terribleness for Schwartz; his father passed away last December, and Schwartz nearly opted out of last season, which was probably his worst since his rookie season (2012-13). Schwartz has scored at least 55 points in three of the prior four seasons, and the one he didn’t (2018-19), he shot at an unsustainably low 6.01% (his career average if 12.4%).

Schwartz also missed 16 games with an oblique injury last year; if he’s back at full health, mark him down for 20-25 goals and 50-60 points in my book. Before last year, Schwartz was always an elite play-driver, too. At 29, it is possible for some age-related decline. But we’re talking about a guy who had never been below 50% in Corsi or xG before last year. He’s a very good player at his peak. And I think he can give the Kraken at least 2-3 years at that level.

There’s less concern and a fairly similar upside with the rest of Seattle’s top-six. Jordan Eberle had an excellent four-year run for the Islanders; 169 points in 272 regular-season games, 34 points in 49 playoff contests, and his underlying numbers have been fantastic the last two years, including xG and goals for percentages in the 59% range. He is 31, but I don’t agree with the Islanders’ decision to leave him unprotected. Lou Lamoriello essentially chose Kyle Palmieri (who inked a 4-year, $20 million contract) over Eberle. Palmieri is one year younger, $500K cheaper, and scored 7 goals in 19 playoff games this year. But for my money, Eberle’s the better player, and the Kraken should be happy to have him.

Jared McCann was one of the breakout performers of the league last season, making good on the potential that made him a first-round pick of Vancouver in 2014. McCann has been a different player since heading to Pittsburgh via trade from Florida at the 2019 deadline; 71 points in 212 games before, 84 in 141 after. Last season was his best yet, as McCann tallied 32 points in 41 games, finishing with the ninth-best goals-for percentage in the league (69.23%). He can play center or the wing and is better than the farewell tour of Jeff Carter, who the Penguins protected while trading McCann to Toronto, where he served as Alex Kerfoot insurance.

Speaking of advanced stats, hello, Joonas Donskoi. I was a big fan of Donskoi’s when he hit free agency in 2019, and he’s done great work in Colorado since. Except for 2019-20, Donskoi has been above 53% by Corsi and xG in every season of his six-year career (though he was negative relative to his beastly play-driving teammates in both his year as an Av). His point totals don’t jump off the page; but last season he did score at a 50-point pace, plus finished with the 14th best goals-for percentage in the league, just behind McCann. None of these last three players are elite talents, but they are bonafide top-six players.

Mason Appleton also has some skill and could move up in a pinch. The 25-year old finally established himself as a full-time NHLer last year, scoring 25 points in 56 games. Brandon Tanev has a much different play style; he’s a physical forechecker and energy player that was a fan favorite in both Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. His contract ($3.5 million for four years with a 10-team no-trade list) is the only downside here; I wonder if the Penguins thought Seattle would even be willing to select him given it.

The Kraken also signed a few veterans to compete for the last two or three spots up-front; Marcus Johansson can play all three forward positions. But last year was the worst offensive season of his career (14 points in 36 games). Ryan Donato was once thought to be a future top-six scorer. Yet he’s been more of a 30-point tweener player so far. Riley Sheahan is a decent but generic defensive fourth-line center. Of the prospects/young players Seattle selected, Alex True probably has the best shot of anyone to make the team. He’s 6’5”, can play center, and scored. 20 points in 27 AHL games last season.

Defensemen

Mark GiordanoAdam Larsson
Jamie OleksiakVince Dunn
Carson SoucyHaydn Fleury

Seattle is a team better suited to prevent goals than score them. While they lack high-end scoring talent, the Kraken’s blue-line features a nice mix of physicality and puck-movers. Thanks to a perfect storm up in Alberta, Seattle wound up with former Flames captain Mark Giordano. Even at 37 (soon to be 38 on October 3), Giordano is still a legitimate top-pair defenseman. He’s money in the bank for 30-35 points, 23 minutes of ice-time, plays in all situations, and has been above 52% by Corsi and xG four years running. Maybe you’d prefer a more dynamic partner than the one-dimensional Adam Larsson, a decent but probably overpaid defensive defenseman (4 x $4 million) also leaving a Western Alberta team.

The Kraken might have that dynamic defenseman shortly thanks to St. Louis export Vince Dunn. The 24-year old is a smooth skater who fell out of favor with Craig Berube and his staff, being healthy scratched multiple times in 2021. He’s scored at least at a 35-point pace two of the last three years and will likely run one of Seattle’s power-play units. He has the most upside of any Kraken defender and could be the face of Seattle’s blue-line moving forward.

His dynamism is significantly ahead of the rest of the projected members of Seattle’s bottom two pairings. That’s not to say they aren’t good players, though. Especially Jamie Oleksiak, who formed an excellent partnership alongside Miro Heiskanen in Dallas. He’ll have to prove Heiskanen wasn’t carrying the load in that duo this season. But his advanced stats are legitimately strong. The 6’7” Oleksiak is a rare player who can win over old and new school fans alike. Carson Soucy is another defense-first blue-liner who has done pretty well in third pair minutes the last two years in Minnesota, posting a 67% goals for percentage that seems improbable next to his 42% Corsi mark (though he was “only” about -5% relative to his teammates, as Minnesota as a whole were outshot heavily at 5v5).

The final spot on the Kraken’s backend is a little less certain. But it’s a decent bet that Haydn Fleury will start the year in it. Francis knows him well, drafting the 6’3” 25-year old fourth overall in 2014. Fleury’s main challenger will be Jérémy Lauzon, who had a pretty nice season last year for Boston. Fleury hasn’t lived up to that billing but does have nearly 200 games of NHL experience, which certainly helps his case. Dennis Cholowski was also once thought to have top-four upside, but the 23-year old never developed as expected. 22-year old Cale Fleury played in 41 NHL games in 2018-19, but like Fleury and Cholowski, won’t produce much. Connor Carrick has a shot at making it as a spare if the Kraken wants to send the loser of the Fleury/Lauzon battle to the AHL.

Goaltender

Philipp Grubauer
Chris Driedger

After the expansion draft, it looked like Seattle’s defense was their biggest strength. That changed the moment the team inked reigning Vezina runner-up Philipp Grubauer to a 6-year, $29.4 million contract After developing behind prime Braden Holtby in Washington, Grubauer took over the starters reigns in Colorado. He split the crease with Semyon Varlamov in his first year (2018-19), but started all twelve of Colorado’s playoff games that year and has been their unquestioned starter since.

It was a mistake by Joe Sakic to let Grubauer walk, especially seeing how much it cost to acquire 2022 UFA Darcy Kuemper (who makes $4.5 million, for reference) via trade to replace him. Grubauer has never had a season below a .915 save percentage. You could argue some of that is a product of playing for great teams. But Grubauer was 11th in the NHL last year with 5.2 goals saved above expected, per Moneypuck.com. That’s right in line with his $5.9 million cap hit, the 10th highest among goaltenders. Oh, and signing him allowed Seattle to flip Vitek Vanecek back to the Capitals after taking him in the expansion draft, fetching a 2nd round pick in return.

The only odd thing about the Grubauer signing is it seemed like Seattle was ready to roll into their inaugural season with Chris Driedger as their starter. Before the 2019-20 season, Driedger had just 3 games of NHL experience (none since 2016-17) and had spent time in the ECHL the season before. Over the last two years, no goaltender with at least 35 games played has a higher save percentage than Driedger’s ridiculous .931% mark. He was 13th in goals saved above expected per 60 last year and 1st in that mark the season before (min. 10 games played). In his mid-20s, a time when most prospects “are what they are,” Driedger went from afterthought to triumphant feel-good story, a tremendous arc to follow.

You wouldn’t expect a goalie like Gruabuer to be part of a tandem, but perhaps Seattle will follow the models Boston and Dallas used in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Both teams had top-tier starters in Tuukka Rask and Ben Bishop but elected to play backups Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin often to keep their starters rested; Bishop and Rask were just 15th and 18th in starts over that time. In that span, Dallas was first in the entire league with a .922 save percentage, Boston was third at a .916 mark, and both teams made runs to the Stanley Cup Final. If Grubauer-Driedger can be that kind of tandem, the Kraken could ride them to the playoffs as soon as this season.

The Verdict

I tipped my hand in that last sentence, but yes, I believe the Seattle Kraken is capable of reaching the playoffs in year one. I don’t think they’ll score very much; they have some decent weapons, but lack true high-end talent, as you’d expect. But their defense and goaltending look like some of the league’s best and they’ll be fairly deep once Gourde returns. The Kraken, if nothing else, is a team with a clear identity. From Tanev to Oleksiak to Larsson to Soucy, there are a lot of physical, defensively responsible players on this team. It’s a bit weird to focus on that in a league that is becoming quicker and more skilled by the day. But building a team on high-end skill just isn’t feasible via an expansion draft.

Vegas had a very similarly built team (I’d say their forwards and goaltending were roughly even, and I’d take Seattle’s blue-line over theirs) that became an offensive juggernaut thanks to incredible chemistry, a few perfectly timed career years, and outstanding coaching by Gerrard Gallant. That probably won’t happen for the Kraken, in part because I’m skeptical of Dave Hakstol. That’s not exactly an uncommon sentiment for Flyers fans like myself who grew plenty frustrated with him in Philly. But everyone deserves a second chance. And I’m sure Hakstol has learned from at least some of his mistakes over the last three years. That doesn’t mean he’ll be perfect. But I’m not worried about him holding the team back right out of the chute or anything.

While their team structure is somewhat similar to Vegas’, that’s where the comparison between the Golden Knights and Kraken should stop, at least for now. Anyone expecting Seattle to repeat Vegas’ year one success is making a foolish bet, regardless of whether it pans out. I don’t really think anybody would be picking Seattle to make the playoffs if they weren’t in the Pacific, easily the weakest division on hockey. Other than Vegas being good and Anaheim and probably San Jose being bad, there’s no order of teams too crazy to produce.

Of Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, and Seattle, Vancouver, two (maybe three) are probably making the playoffs. I’d give the Oilers a bit of an inside track among that group. But the third divisional spot is wide open. The Kraken’s outstanding defense could set them apart in helping them shut down the potent offenses of Vegas, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Or maybe more well-rounded teams like the Flames or Kings win the day. At the very least, the Kraken should be competitive until at least the trade deadline in late March. At that point, they’ll have to make decisions on pending UFAs Giordano and Jarnkrök; choices that will reveal Seattle’s contention timeline. It’s ok if there’s a bit of a waiting period. But Seattle should have enough in the tank to make fans excited right out of the gate.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly