NHL Free Agency Day 1: The Kraken gets released

by Dan Morse

The NHL free agent market officially opened up on Wednesday, and boy were the Seattle Kraken active. There were plenty of questions after the expansion draft about how Seattle would utilize their nearly $30 million in cap space, and some of those questions have been definitively answered.

Before we get into the big names that were inked to new deals, let’s talk about the overall strategy. As an expansion team, it’s tough to expect the Kraken to lure free agents to Seattle on team-friendly deals. While teams like Tampa Bay can attract players to the team with the promise of another Stanley Cup, Seattle remains the great unknown in regards to when they will become a truly competitive playoff team. That means that in free agency, Seattle has to offer as much, or likely more, than most other NHL teams—which is what makes the extra cap space saved after the expansion draft so crucial.

So, who did the Kraken go out and spend (perhaps even overspend?) on in free agency? Let’s take a look.

Alex Wennberg

The first official signing was forward Alex Wennberg. Wennberg had a career-high 17 goals in 56 games last year in his only season with the Florida Panthers. He spent the previous six seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. His final two years with the Blue Jackets were underwhelming, to say the least, but in Florida he seemed to find his game once again and proved that he still can be a top-six center. While he doesn’t provide much on the defensive side of the ice, Wennberg does add value where the Kraken lack it most: in the offensive zone.

Wennberg had the most primary shot assists per 60 minutes of play last year among forwards currently signed by the Kraken, according to data tracked by Corey Sznajder. A shot assist is any pass that leads directly to a shot. That means he excels at setting his teammates up with scoring chances in the offensive zone.

A scatter plot highlighting Alex Wennberg's high rate of shot assists in 2020-2021

The options for top-six forwards were few and far between in the expansion draft for Seattle, and Wennberg fits in that hole perfectly. Now he just needs to be paired with someone who isn’t afraid to shoot the puck and Seattle will really be in business.

Jaden Schwartz

The worst-kept secret of Seattle’s free agency signings was left-winger Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz was rumored to be coming to Seattle as far back as the expansion draft, and now it’s finally done. He spent the last 9 years (plus a few games in his 19-year old season) with the St. Louis Blues and was a key part of their Stanley Cup run in 2019 where he scored 12 goals in 26 playoff games.

At his best, Schwartz can be a productive, top-line player. And not only does he add some offense to a team that really needs it, he’s also one of the better defensive wingers available too. Evolving Hockey rank Schwartz in the 94th percentile among forwards in their defensive Goals Above Replacement (GAR) metric over the past three years, which is just a really fancy way of saying teams playing against Schwartz don’t get good scoring chances when he’s on the ice.

While the defense is nice, it’s his offense that will be most needed in Seattle in year one. There is an interesting comparison to be made here with another player that was frequently considered a lock to be an expansion selection by Seattle last week: James van Riemsdyk.

A table showing stats for Jaden Schwartz and James van Riemsdyk over the last 9 years

On a points per 60 minutes basis, Schwartz has been quite similar to van Riemsdyk over the last nine seasons, with the exception of those two recent years where he battled through some injuries. That 2018-19 year, remember, was also the Stanley Cup year where he netted 12 goals and 20 points in 26 games (2.64 P/60). Schwartz doesn’t have the 30+ goal season that van Riemsdyk has (JvR netted 36 in 2017-18), but he’s also three years younger and nearly $2 million cheaper. James van Riemsdyk was a draft-and-trade candidate, Schwartz is a foundational piece of the team for the next five years.

Philipp Grubauer

The biggest surprise of the day came when Seattle jumped into the conversation for the top goaltender available on the open market, Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer has been the starting goaltender for the Colorado Avalanche for the past three years and is coming off of his best season yet, posting a .922 save percentage (8th in the NHL) and allowing less than two goals per game (2nd in the NHL).

Part of that comes down to the fact that Colorado was, frankly, a damn good team. Among those with at least 1,000 minutes played last season, no goaltender faced fewer unblocked shot attempts per game (Fenwick Against/60, or FA/60) than Grubauer.

a bar chart displaying goalie shots against per game, with philipp grubauer facing by far the fewest in the nhl

Now this is by no means Grubauer’s fault, but it’s worth considering that he did face a lighter workload than everyone else last year. The good news is that the Kraken already look like a strong defensive team coached by Dave Hakstol, who has a history of coaching teams that don’t allow many high-quality shots. He very well may be stepping into a similar situation defensively—a situation in which we know he can excel.

Taking into account how dangerous the shots against Grubauer have been over the past three years is an even more encouraging in regards to his ability. He saved over 20 more goals than expected over that timeframe based on Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, a fantastic mark.

There’s little doubt Grubauer will be a great immediate addition to this team, though the possibility of paying him $6 million in his age 35 or 36 season could be cause for concern down the road. For now, however, Grubauer is the highlight of a busy day for Ron Francis and the Seattle Kraken.

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