Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2021-22, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2021-22 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Seattle Kraken.
2021-22 Seattle Kraken
We’ve arrived at the only team in the Puck Drop Preview series that does not have a 2020-21 season to recap. Seattle joins the league officially in 2021-22, however that’s not to say they haven’t been active all this time. The Kraken hired Ron Francis as their first General Manager in team history in the summer of 2019. They hired Dave Hakstol as their first Head Coach much later, in June of 2020. Between those hirings sat the 2020-21 NHL season, where the bulk of Seattle’s preparation for their inaugural season occurred.
While all other teams jockeyed for playoff positioning, the Kraken watched from afar. Francis and his team scouted teams thoroughly over the last season, from top to bottom. The COVID-19 pandemic surely challenged their process. With many junior and prospect leagues on pause or playing reduced schedules, scouting opportunities were few and far between. The pandemic reduced the overall body of work available to scout, but affected other teams just as much in their preparation for the expansion draft, too.
The Biggest Effect: Flat Salary Cap
Due to revenue loss, the league instituted a flat cap effective beginning back in the 2019-20 season. This meant the cap, at $81.5 million that season, stayed there for 2020-21. And for 2021-22. The league became accustomed to seeing annual increases over the past decade, adding anywhere between $1.6 – $4.7 million annually to each team’s available payrolls. Suddenly that dried up, and for three consecutive years. Money is tougher to come by now more than ever, and players who want raises more often than not must test free agency. And even then, the risk remains high that other teams can’t afford the asking price, either.
As teams struggled to find avenues to save money and pay their most important talent, the Kraken arrived. And with them came a brand-new $81.5 million payroll, with every dollar up-for-grabs. Many teams chose to leave expensive players exposed in the expansion draft, even if they featured as important pieces of their rosters. Names like Jakub Voracek, Matt Duchene, Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, James van Riemsdyk, Yanni Gourde, Jason Zucker, and more all sat unprotected. Fans in Seattle salivated at the potential roster combinations.
Then, the expansion draft came and went on July 21st and most of the big names available wound up staying with their respective franchises. Immediately people took to social media, declaring the draft a blunder on Seattle’s part. The Kraken took a few premier names but passed on most. Instead, they targeted younger players, primarily prospects. They loaded up on defencemen and then had a field day in free agency too.
Expansion Draft Results
A handful of differences exist between Seattle’s expansion and the Vegas Golden Knights expansion a few years ago. The biggest has to be the fact that not a single side deal took place between Seattle and other franchises. Vegas made multiple agreements and trades with other teams to ensure a specific player would be selected, at an additional price. It seemed the rest of the league learned from their mistakes, and elected not to go that route a second time with the Kraken.
But in both instances, hockey fans immediately deemed the league’s newest team to be weak. Vegas proved everyone wrong by making the Stanley Cup Finals in year one. Seattle’s fate remains to be seen, but the critiques already fly.
On draft day, Seattle drafted many cost-effective players and prospects. Most notably at forward, Seattle grabbed Gourde, Jared McCann, Jordan Eberle, Brandon Tanev, and Joonas Donskoi. They took more high-calibre defencemen, scooping up Mark Giordano, Jamie Oleksiak, Adam Larsson, Vince Dunn, and Carson Soucy. In net, Chris Driedger and Vitek Vanecek looked like the team’s inaugural tandem.
Free Agency & Rounding out the 2021-22 Seattle Kraken Roster
Goaltending and defence boasted plenty of strong pieces, but the forward group remained thin. Especially knowing Gourde wouldn’t be ready for the first part of the season, recovering from shoulder surgery. Francis loaded up on free agent forwards, signing Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Wennberg, Marcus Johansson, Riley Sheahan, and Ryan Donato.
All those additions put the Kraken, as of today, one player over the 23-man roster limit. They also sit a comfortable $8 million beneath the salary cap. The franchise must still figure out what last move (or moves) need to be made to get down to 23 players. With all their draft picks intact, plus a few extra from trades, and all that cap flexibility, the franchise sits in a strong position for making moves going forward.
The biggest question facing the Seattle Kraken in 2021-22 still surrounds the forward group. The pieces added in free agency certainly affords Hakstol far more options, though the team’s weakness might still be a lack of firepower. They look like they’ll be fairly balanced across all forward lines, without being very top-heavy at all. On the blue line and in net, though, the team appears strong and deep, at least on paper. How all this will mesh, what kind of chemistry they develop, remains to be seen.
Jaden Schwartz – Alexander Wennberg – Jordan Eberle
Brandon Tanev – Jared McCann – Joonas Donskoi
Extras: Nathan Bastian, Riley Sheahan, Yanni Gourde (injured)
When Gourde returns, things will certainly become more potent. But for now, it’s hard to predict exactly how dangerous this forward group might be. The Kraken’s top six pales in comparison to many teams around the league, but can’t be looked over, either. Eberle brings an exciting flash good for 20+ goals. Wennberg could top the 20-goal plateau too if he builds on his career year last season (17 goals, 12 assists, 56 games played). Donskoi had a career year very similar to Wennberg’s too and hopes to make that the norm going forward.
Schwartz hopes for a bounce-back season after a very difficult 2020-21 for him personally. He notched only eight goals last year, though his advanced stats remained strong. If he can recover to the 20-30 goal scorer he was before, Seattle’s top line certainly becomes significantly better. McCann likely begins the year centring line two, but will drop to the third line once Gourde is healthy. Tanev provides a lot of tempo and energy at wing, and his experience probably lands him in the top six to begin the year. If someone lower in the lineup develops into a producer this season, Tanev’s game is probably better suited in the bottom six anyways. He could be moved down sooner than later.
The depth pieces could very well be the most important contributors to Seattle’s success. There are quite a few young players that will earn opportunities to expand their usage and playing time. Should one or two (or three…) take advantage and break out, the roster’s shape would alter immediately.
Appleton is one of those names that could very well be at the top of the depth chart by season’s end. The forward scored 12 goals with the Winnipeg Jets in his first full NHL season. If he scores at that clip, or better (he’s only 25 years old) this season, he’ll be eligible for a quick promotion to the top six. Blackwell is another, after scoring 12 goals in 47 games with the New York Rangers last season. Donato once looked primed to become a 20+ goal scorer and might regain form with this change of scenery. And Geekie, only 22 years old, could factor in regularly; he only played 36 games last season but contributed nine points and a 52.5% faceoff percentage.
Johansson, Jarnkrok and Sheahan can all slide up or down the lineup too should injury or performance require line shuffling. To put it another way: predicting the forward lines for the 2021-22 Seattle Kraken is practically impossible at today’s date.
Mark Giordano – Adam Larsson
Jamie Oleksiak – Vince Dunn
Carson Soucy – Jeremy Lauzon
Giordano, Larsson, Oleksiak and Dunn make up a formidable top-four group. They might shuffle the pairs until chemistry can be optimized, but these four should receive plenty of minutes. Giordano won the Norris Trophy back in 2018-19 and drives the play at both ends of the ice. Dunn, still just 24, has scored double-digit goal totals as well. Larsson and Oleksiak provide balance to those two, with their enormous frames and stout defencive ability.
Seattle will lean on their back end heavily, and any offence they can contribute will be welcomed with open arms. This is a good group to drive the play with and expect them to be responsible for a lot at both ends of the ice.
The strength of depth at defence shines through here. Picking the bottom pairing is extremely difficult this early, as it will more than likely depend on performance in camp to shake out. Soucy and Lauzon would be early favorites. But, Carrick and the Fleury brothers can’t be overlooked. All have logged significant minutes in the past and expect to be part of the team from the get-go this season.
There’s a bit of a logjam, to say the least.
One notable weakness of Seattle’s group is the lack of right-handed defencemen. Only Larsson, Borgen, Carrick, and Cale Fleury are righties. Considering Larsson is the only one of that group sure to play in the top four, it looks like Seattle will suit up more lefties than righties regularly.
In Grubauer and Driedger, Seattle owns a formidable one-two punch. Driedger carried a lot of responsibility for the Florida Panthers’ surprise success last season. Grubauer, on the other hand, backstopped one of the best teams in the league in the Avalanche for the last few seasons. His numbers were among the best in the league last season, earning him a Vezina nomination. Grubauer held a .922 save percentage, Driedger a .927; if they both stay that strong, the sky is the limit.
Combine the fact that the roster is constructed with a “defence first” style, this team should be extremely hard to score against. Most of the team’s depth strength is on the blue line. If Grubauer and Driedger get the support that is expected from the group ahead of them, the 2021-22 Seattle Kraken will be in great shape.
Players to Watch
As mentioned above, Appleton had the best season of his young career last year. His ice time jumped, earning over three additional minutes of playing time per night. His production followed suit, as he more than tripled his point total from a season earlier. Seattle hopes his goal-scoring ability continues to develop, and will likely want to see him in a top-six role should that occur. If you’re looking for Seattle’s “William Karlsson“, Appleton would be a good player to put your money on for that kind of breakout.
Dunn was limited to 43 games in 2020-21, but his ice time crept up near the 20-minute mark on a nightly basis. His usage should exceed that right away in Seattle. The soon-to-be-25-year-old will have every opportunity in the world to establish himself as a top-flight NHL defenceman in Seattle. He’ll be pushed internally by the team’s competing depth at the position, but Dunn slots in as a favourite to lead the team forward.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Seattle Kraken
Seattle benefits from joining arguably the weakest division in the NHL. As a result, they might be able to squeak into the post-season right away. In 2021-22, the Seattle Kraken can be expected to finish third or fourth in the Pacific Division. They should be stronger than most of the rebuilding teams out west, like the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, and Los Angeles Kings. One or two of those teams may take a major step forward. But considering the division only has the Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers who qualified for the postseason last year, the opportunity is there for Seattle.