Seattle flush with options ahead of NHL free agency

by Dan Morse
Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis

The Kraken have been much quieter on the roster construction side of things than most people expected after the expansion draft. While the Vegas Golden Knights traded away four of their expansion selections within 10 days of their draft (acquiring two 2nd round picks, a 3rd, and a 5th) Seattle has held fast to their picks aside from getting a 4th round pick for forward Tyler Pitlick.

As of now, Ron Francis doesn’t appear to have any more trades in his back pocket. That does not mean, however, that the roster as it is currently constructed will be the same as the roster on October 12th when Seattle heads to Vegas for their first regular season game. Because while there may not be many trades involving Seattle, they’re expected to be a major player when free agency opens up on Wednesday the 28th. Ron Francis stated as much following the expansion draft.

“That would be our plan, yeah. Certainly there’s guys that were protected that might be available. We’ll certainly look at who’s out there on the 28th and hopefully we can entice more guys to come and join us.”

And of course, they’re also required to by rule.

Every team in the NHL has to be below the $81.5 million salary cap by the start of the regular season. But it’s the other side of that coin that has a more outsized effect on the Kraken this year—the $60.2 million salary cap floor.

Per Cap Friendly, Seattle is projected to have a total NHL salary of about $50.8 million this upcoming season as the roster stands now. They have several restricted free agents still to sign, but of those only Vince Dunn seems like a sure thing to crack the opening night roster. His contract should come in somewhere in the $3M-$3.5M* range, leaving Seattle still a full $6 million shy of the minimum required salary by the NHL.

*A quick note about NHL contract values: they are typically reported as the Average Annual Value, or AAV, because the salary cap hit for the team is always the total salary divided by the number of years on the contract. All numbers in this piece as far as contract values go will be referring to AAV.

Once teams are permitted to negotiate contracts with free agents on Wednesday, Seattle will need to find enough players to fill out their NHL roster that will give them at least $6 million more in salary. They could theoretically trade some of their cheaper talent now for players on larger contracts, but that really doesn’t seem to fit with what the team has done so far. Which leaves two options as to how Seattle will spend to the cap floor in free agency.

Note: Contract projections used in this piece come from a model developed by Josh and Luke Younggren available at evolving-hockey.com to paid subscribers

Option A: Go big or go home

They could ignore grandma’s advice and go spend it all in one place like their inner child has always wanted to. If that’s the case, Gabriel Landeskog seems to be the top target. 

The captain of the Colorado Avalanche seemed destined to remain with his team all season long, but another early playoff exit along with stalled contract talks has shifted the conversation entirely. Landeskog, at 28 years old, is looking for what will likely be his last big payday in the NHL. His linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make $6.3M and $9.25M, respectively, and it’s safe to say Landeskog would like something in that range. The contract projection model at Evolving Hockey predicts he could command a 7-year, $8.8M deal this offseason.

With a massive new deal for superstar defender Cale Makar in the books and another big one for Philipp Grubauer still being worked out, there’s a real possibility that Colorado simply won’t have the space to match what a team could offer Landeskog in free agency. Enter the Kraken.

Seattle reportedly talked to Landeskog during the 72-hour negotiating window prior to the expansion draft, implying they were at least considering using their selection on the stud winger. Ultimately they went with Joonas Donskoi, but that doesn’t mean they can’t circle back on Landeskog this week after he has a chance to see what his skills will command to other interested parties on the open market.

Landeskog would be a huge get for Seattle, immediately giving them the star power on offense that they lack, and providing instant leadership in the locker room for the expected 7-year life of his contract. With only two other contracts over $5M AAV after this year, splurging on this big name would in no way hamstring the franchise in the immediate future. And of course, it would be really damn fun to watch in year one.

The other potentially high-priced addition could be Phillip Danault. Coming fresh off of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, Danault is known primarily as an elite defensive center. Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com has a great visual of how the Canadiens allowed far fewer high-danger shots against their goaltender with Danault on the ice, where the blue areas in the bottom-left quadrant represent a lower-than-average amount of shots allowed by the Habs.

The Montreal Canadiens allowed 11% fewer expected goals than average with Danault on the ice last season

The Montreal Canadiens allowed 11% fewer expected goals than average with Danault on the ice last season

He would fit in as a top-six center in Seattle along with Yanni Gourde and provide proven talent at a thin position. Like Landeskog, Danault projects to get a long-term deal this offseason, likely the maximum allowed 7 years. Evolving Hockey predicts a $6.2M cap charge for the 28-year old, which could be more than a team would like to pay for a player who has only surpassed 50 points once in his career. His defensive ability, however, is clearly enough for Seattle to take a long look at him. The Kraken did have discussions with Danault’s camp during their expansion negotiating window, but whether or not those talks will pick back up this week remains unknown.

Option B: Spread the wealth

For the price of one Gabriel Landeskog, Seattle could instead invest in two or three mid-level free agents in an attempt to fill out more than just their top line. It wouldn’t be as splashy of a move, but this option would fit in better with the strategy they have laid out thus far.

Seattle only has two players under contract for more than one season with contracts over $5M AAV—forwards Jordan Eberle and Yanni Goure. Mark Giordano carries the highest cap charge at $6.75M, but with only one year remaining it hardly hinders the team from making any move in the near future. Ron Francis has said multiple times he likes where the team is in regards to their cap situation, so it can be inferred that they’d like to keep it that way in an era where the salary cap may stay stagnant for as many as five years.

“We think [cap space] is the valuable thing to have right now, especially in the COVID environment with the flat cap,” said Francis in his post-expansion draft availability. “We went through our choices and there were some good players that were out there, but maybe we weren’t comfortable with the cap hit on some of them. We tried to draft the best team possible that we could and still keep our cap space available to hopefully do some things as we move forward.”

If Seattle wants to keep that cap flexibility to a maximum, it might behoove them to look towards some of these more affordable free agents to fill out their lineup.

Jaden Schwartz | LW | Age 28
EH projection: 3 years, $4.75M AAV

Seattle reportedly showed interest in Schwartz during the negotiating window ahead of the expansion draft, but ultimately selected the promising young defender Vince Dunn from the St. Louis Blues instead. That doesn’t mean, however, that the talks didn’t go well between Schwartz and the Kraken. In fact, Seattle now seems to be the frontrunner as his eventual landing spot.

Talks are expected to pick back up on Wednesday between the two sides, but no details of a deal have yet been reported. Schwartz would immediately slot in opposite Jordan Eberle on the team’s top line and provide proven NHL talent on the offensive side, an area with which Seattle projects to need the most help.

Zach Aston-Reese | LW | Age 26
EH Projection: 3 years, $2M AAV

Aston-Reese was a popular choice for the Kraken’s selection in the expansion draft among the analytics community. He plays very strong defense and has the ability to generate shots both off the rush and while set up in the offensive zone, as seen in the manually tracked data from Corey Sznajder.

Zach Aston-Reese is above average at shot generation both on the rush and set up in the offensive zone, per Corey Sznajder

From Corey Sznajder’s manually tracked data

Aston-Reese has not been given a qualifying offer from the Pittsburgh Penguins as of this writing, and appears to be set to become an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday. He could fit in as a 3rd line winger with potential to get even better with an opportunity to play more minutes for the expansion club.

UPDATE: Zach Aston-Reese was qualified by the Pittsburgh Penguins after this post was published. He will no longer become an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday.

Jujhar Khaira | C | Age 26
EH Projection: 1 year, $990K

Khaira was not extended a qualifying offer by the Edmonton Oilers, which means he becomes an unrestricted free agent this week. He’s likely a career bottom-six forward, but he can play center and spent a lot of time killing penalties last year, which is always important. If Seattle takes a run at Khaira to perhaps center their third line, that could also allow them to shelter their shiny new second-overall pick Matty Beniers on the fourth line as he develops in his first year.

The cap hits of these three players combined could very well come in around the same hit as Landeskog alone. This would net Seattle a winger who despite not being as good as Landeskog would still project as their top-line left wing as well as two more capable NHL players that could fill out their bottom-six.

Whichever method Ron Francis and the Kraken front office choose to utilize, rest assured that despite a quieter start to their organization than anticipated, they will be making plenty of moves once free agency opens up on July 28th.

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