When the Vegas Golden Knights began play in the 2017-18 season, expectations were very low. In fact, media and fans alike predicted that the team would finish in the league basement for at least a few years before entering contention. However, the Knights shockingly won the Pacific Division before putting together an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Undoubtedly the biggest reason behind Vegas’s unexpected success was the breakout performances enjoyed by many of their players. A number of their expansion draft picks who had previously been only depth options exploded for career seasons. The sheer magnitude and number of offensive explosions on the roster were impossible to predict.
With the Seattle Kraken roster all but set for the upcoming season, it’s worth looking at who could break out in a similar capacity. If the following players manage to exceed expectations, it’s very possible that the team as a whole could do the same.
Jared McCann, Forward
Seattle’s pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jared McCann, could very well be one of the best players on the team in its first season. Acquired by Toronto from the Pittsburgh Penguins before being selected in the expansion draft, he is coming off a very strong season that could be a sign of things to come.
McCann was drafted 24th overall in 2014 by the Vancouver Canucks. At just 25 years old, he will be taking the ice for his fourth NHL franchise in 2021-22.
This past season, McCann managed 14 goals and 32 points in 43 games and finished second in the entire league in Evolving Hockey‘s wins above replacement (WAR) statistic, with a WAR of 3.2. The latter number is a bit misleading, as McCann was certainly not the second-best player in the league. His PDO (per Natural Stat Trick) ranked third among skaters with 300 minutes played last season and indicates that there will be regression coming. However, there is no doubt that he had a fantastic 2020-21.
Given a consistent opportunity in the top six, McCann could blossom into a bonafide first-line center for the Kraken. His 2020-21 performance may not be immediately repeatable, but it still bodes well for his future.
Mason Appleton, Forward
Plucked from the Winnipeg Jets in the expansion draft, 25-year-old Mason Appleton could prove to be a great fit in Seattle. The 2015 sixth-round pick has defied the odds to become a regular in the NHL.
Appleton became a full-time NHL player this past season, appearing in all 56 games with the Jets and putting up a 12-13-25 stat line. Not eye-popping numbers, but very respectable for a rookie who averaged only 14:24 per game. With greater opportunity on an expansion team, expect those numbers to rise.
Appleton was also very strong defensively for a team who struggled greatly in that regard. He will contribute to the Kraken’s inaugural roster; the only question is whether that will be as a defensive stalwart or something more. It is certainly possible that he becomes a valuable offensive contributor if given the opportunity.
Vince Dunn, Defense
The Kraken’s pick from the St. Louis Blues, Vince Dunn has quietly been a very effective defenseman for several years. The 2015 second-round pick’s point totals have not been all that impressive thus far, but his underlying numbers are very strong.
Dunn has always been something of a polarizing player. He is admittedly prone to costly mistakes in his own zone, but his overall impact on the game has always been excellent. Some have argued that his strong analytical numbers are due to his quality of competition, as he generally played on the third pair in St. Louis and received easier matchups. However, the same argument could be used to justify his unimpressive point totals.
The only way to determine whether Dunn is the real deal or a beneficiary of easy minutes will be to see how he performs against stiffer competition. He will almost certainly get that opportunity in Seattle, making the upcoming season an important one. If all goes well, the 24-year-old may cement himself as one of the top defensemen in the NHL and at a bargain of $4 million per year.
Haydn Fleury, Defense
The Kraken plucked Haydn Fleury from the Anaheim Ducks in the expansion draft. Although he has yet to reach expectations, the 2014 seventh overall pick still has potential to grow into a quality NHL player.
Fleury was traded from the Carolina Hurricanes to the Ducks at this year’s trade deadline after years of failing to establish himself on Carolina’s deep blue line. He struggled to escape a third-pairing role and was in desperate need of a change of scenery. He saw a minor uptick in offensive output during his brief tenure with Anaheim but still only received about 15 minutes of ice time per game.
Though the Kraken’s blue line is already quite deep, Fleury may get the opportunity that he’s been needing. In a bigger role, he could blossom into the high-end defenseman he most thought he’d be when he was a prospect.
Each of these players remains a question mark, and full-on breakouts would be the best-case scenario. Although all of them have reached the age at which players begin to stagnate, many thought the same of Vegas’s picks in 2017. If the Kraken can find the expansion magic that benefitted the Golden Knights, they could see several players grow into top-end NHLers.
Jake is a reliable source for the Seattle Kraken here at The Hockey Writers. Hailing from New York City, he is an avid fan of all things hockey and is always involved with the sport, whether that means writing, watching, or playing. An enthusiastic advocate for sports analytics, Jake will often weave them into his posts to support his ideas. More of his work can be found on his Substack page, and he is a contributor with @hky_tapetalk on Instagram. For any questions or inquiries, Jake can be contacted on his Twitter, @jakezrihen.