On July 23, 2020, the Seattle Kraken were introduced as the National Hockey League’s 32nd franchise.
Thursday’s introductory event was largely designed to let hockey fans fawn over logos and sweaters, both of which are beautiful. But the real work starts now.
The Kraken are entering the league in unprecedented times. The NHL is staring down the barrel of a flat salary cap due to the ongoing public health and economic crisis, and teams around the league – especially contenders who have been aggressively spending over the past few seasons – are going to be forced to displace some talent from their roster.
What may be a tough story for every other team in the league presents an opportunity for the Kraken.
The one element the Kraken won’t have on their side is that of surprise. Seattle’s introduction to the league comes just a few seasons after expansion in Las Vegas. While Vegas’ entrance to the league hasn’t been without mistakes, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which an expansion team in any pro sports league could have as much success as the Golden Knights did over their first three seasons.
What was supposed to be a ragtag lineup ended up being quite structured and talented under the watchful eye of former head coach Gerard Gallant. And it was far from a fluke – the Golden Knights are still considered one of the favourites in the Stanley Cup race.
Vegas has set a high bar. Maybe the highest bar. But there are still at least three points of consideration for Seattle – points that should put the team on the right path for long-term success.
The chance of an NHL team being competitive without stable goaltending, considering the degree of parity around the league, is somewhere between slim and none.
Marc-Andre Fleury may be in a quiet dogfight for playing time with the newly acquired Robin Lehner these days, but Fleury was the rock behind Vegas’ defence for the team’s first two and a half years.
The Golden Knights convinced Fleury to waive his no-movement clause to come to Vegas. But the fact that Vegas even had that opportunity was the result of a number of factors well outside their control.
Fleury just so happened to be having one of his worst seasons in Pittsburgh and was commanding nearly $6-million against the cap each year. Further, prospect Matt Murray was in the midst of what would end up being his best season to date, setting the stage for Fleury’s displacement.
What did Vegas get as a result? Well, a respectable starting goaltender for three seasons and counting:
Nothing explains a team’s position in the standings more than the play of its goaltenders. And while not every team with quality goaltending is playoff calibre, it is very hard to find teams with poor goaltending pushing into the playoff picture.
Find opportunities outside of the Expansion Draft
What has become a part of hockey lore is how many teams ended up working out “side deals” with the Golden Knights – deals intended to protect certain players outside of the Expansion Draft rules.
These side deals, just about every single time, carried a massive premium penalty for the other team.
The Florida Panthers get picked on a lot for this, but they are the best example of what not to do come Expansion Draft time. In order to protect another defenceman (Alex Petrovic, specifically) and shed some salary in the process, the team exposed Jonathan Marchessault and subsequently traded Reilly Smith to Vegas for a fourth-round pick.
To call that decision a disaster would be an understatement, but Florida wasn’t the only team that worked out a deal on the side that benefited Vegas more than the draft ever could.
- Fleury was acquired along with a second-round pick from Pittsburgh.
- Defenceman Shea Theodore – a first-pairing star and just 24 years old – was acquired from Anaheim as a sweetener for Clayton Stoner’s contract.
- William Karlsson, along with a first-round pick (swapped to Winnipeg later) and a second-round pick were sent by Columbus as a sweetener for David Clarkson’s contract.
- A first-round pick that became Nick Suzuki, who became sniper Max Pacioretty, was acquired from Winnipeg as a sweetener for Chris Thorburn’s contract.
- Alex Tuch and Erik Haula were acquired in order to protect the rest of the Minnesota core.
- Multiple picks – including one that would become prospect Erik Brannstrom – were sent by the New York Islanders to Vegas in order to protect their core, too. Brannstrom was later traded as the prized piece in the Mark Stone deal.
You could go down the rabbit hole for days on this, but the point here is that most of Vegas’ core was not secured by the Expansion Draft, but rather by extension of the Expansion Draft. That is a big distinction. And the picks accumulated over that timeframe were later cashed in to acquire more talent.
I’m scratching the surface here but look how dominant this group – all of whom, except for Haula, remain on the Vegas roster – have been since the 2017-18 regular season:
This collection of talent and depth is a big reason why the Golden Knights have been such a competitive team. That’s six top-six forwards acquired through some gentle arm-wringing by the Golden Knights’ front office, a first-pairing defenceman, and a goaltender who ranks 11th in starts since the 2017-18 season.
It’s about as strong of a core as you can get – an embarrassment of riches provided by some overly friendly teams from around the league.
Load up on assets
Front offices of expansion teams have the type of luxury that others do not – ownership is generally going to be more patient with the overarching process, understanding that it usually takes some degree of time to lay the foundation of a winning team. Acquiring talent is not an overnight process.
One key piece underpinning Vegas’ draft strategy was to go with the best player available at the time of selection. Vegas picked five times in the first two rounds of the 2017 Entry Draft, and four of the five players selected (excluding Regina’s Jake Leschyshyn) have already carved out roles at the NHL level.
Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague have both become regular mainstays for the big-league club, while Suzuki and Brannstrom were traded to build one of the most dominant lines in hockey.
Not every prospect needs to be part of a team’s long-term plan, but nailing value at the draft is key on two fronts – more talent to grow into your own lineup, and more talent to dangle in front of desperate teams hunting for young skill on the market.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com