Kraken Could Reunite Hakstol With Some North Dakota Alumni

Last week, the Seattle Kraken announced their first head coach in franchise history, Dave Hakstol. This decision comes merely weeks before the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Hakstol coached four seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers after compiling an impressive resume with the University of North Dakota (UND) from 2004 through 2015.

Six UND alumni who played for Hakstol enter this offseason as unrestricted free agents (UFAs). Below I explore the likelihood of each player reuniting with their former coach in the Emerald City.

Player Overview

The six UFAs I examine played at North Dakota between the 2004-05 and 2014-15 seasons. They have also played in this most recent NHL season and have amassed at least a full season of NHL experience. UFAs such as Austin Poganski, Luke Johnson, and Paul LaDue do not meet these criteria and are therefore excluded.

I will also not discuss any UND alumni still under contract, such as TJ Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Brock Boeser, and Zach Parise. Additionally, other than Tyson Jost, there are no notable restricted free agents (RFAs) who played for Hakstol at UND. Here are the six UFAs:

Travis Zajac, Center

Zajac is by far the most experienced player on this list. The 36-year-old has logged 1037 NHL games, scoring 203 goals and 349 assists for 552 points.

The longtime New Jersey Devil is in the twilight of his NHL career but, should he sign a team-friendly deal, offers plenty of value. Zajac would make for a respectable third-line center, as he is strong in the faceoff circle, forces turnovers, and can still chip in offensively.

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This past season between the Devils and New York Islanders, he scored eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 46 games, averaging 16:26 of time on ice. He won 51.4 percent of faceoffs, had a 25/14 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio, and recorded a 45.7 Corsi for percentage (CF%), despite starting just 40.7 percent of faceoffs in the offensive zone.

Zajac played for Hakstol during the coach’s first two seasons at North Dakota, helping the team advance to the championship game in 2005 and the Frozen Four in 2006. He scored 35 goals and recorded 48 assists for 83 points in 89 games.

He’s coming off an eight-year, $46 million contract ($5.75 million average annual value, or AAV) and, at 36, will negotiate a deal more comparable to his performance the past couple of seasons. The Islanders have approximately $5.79 million in available salary cap and face difficult decisions regarding their forward core ahead of the expansion draft; it is likely that Zajac will need to look elsewhere in 2021 (from ‘Islanders’ roster stability will be challenged this offseason,’ New York Post, 6/27/21).

Verdict: Zajac has committed 15 years to the NHL and has yet to win a Stanley Cup. 15 years have also elapsed since he last played for Hakstol. If he is to negotiate a deal with a different team, he will likely choose someone who can compete for a Cup in 2022 — even if he has to earn a lot less.

Drake Caggiula, Winger

Caggiula has logged 260 NHL games, scoring 44 goals and 42 assists for 86 points. Despite his 5-foot-10, 176 pound frame, he can play a physical role, as he has racked up 524 career hits. He has demonstrated offensive upside at times, scoring 13 goals in 2017-18 and 12 goals in 2018-19.

Chicago Blackhawks Drake Caggiula Seattle Kraken Dave Hakstol
Drake Caggiula with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020 (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Pickering, Ont. native played at UND during Hakstol’s final three collegiate seasons; the Fighting Hawks made the Frozen Four in two of those seasons. In 162 games, Caggiula recorded 62 goals and 65 assists for 127 points — increasing his scoring output each season.

He’s coming off a one-year league-minimum deal ($700,000) but previously earned a total of $3 million in the prior two seasons. Declining productivity — one goal, six assists in 27 games — was a factor in the Arizona Coyotes waiving him this past season; the Buffalo Sabres claimed him in April.

Verdict: The 27-year-old Caggiula likely wants to find a semi-permanent home after bouncing around several underachieving clubs the past few seasons. That said, he has only appeared in 78 games from 2019-21 and may not be able to negotiate a deal near the $1.5 million AAV from seasons prior. Understanding this, he may opt to reunite with Hakstol at an affordable rate.

Carter Rowney, Winger

The 6-foot-2, 206 pound Rowney is an imposing force in the defensive zone. I examine some key statistics from the past two seasons below; note that oiSV% corresponds with on-ice save percentage.

  • 2019-20: 70.1 dZS%, 91.2 oiSV%, 37.7 CF%
  • 2020-21: 75.8 dZS%, 90.8 oiSV%, 35.4 CF%

While not glamorous, these numbers indicate how Rowney can limit his opponents’ quantity and quality of scoring chances. Conversely, he is two years removed from his best offensive season, in which he scored seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points over 62 games — averaging 12:33 time on ice.

Rowney played for Hakstol from 2009-10 to 2012-13, reaching the Frozen Four once. In 150 games played, he put up 32 goals and 41 assists for 73 points.

Verdict: Rowney is coming off a three-year, $3.4 million contract ($1.3 million AAV) but only appeared in 19 games with the Anaheim Ducks in 2020-21. At 32 years old, his chances of staying on an NHL club may be dwindling. Nonetheless, he could always sign with Seattle for league minimum and compete for a rotational spot in the bottom-six.

Derek Forbort, Defenseman

Forbort is a typical shutdown defenseman, spending a majority of his time in his own zone and frequently blocking shots — 606 over 331 career NHL games. Perhaps his biggest strength is his durability on the penalty kill, as he led the Jets with 2:42 of shorthanded time on ice in 2020-21. His strongest offensive season came in 2017-18, in which he scored a goal and 17 assists in 78 games.

Derek Forbort Winnipeg Jets Seattle Kraken Dave Hakstol
Derek Forbort, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 29-year-old blueliner is coming off an affordable one-year, $1 million contract with the Jets. Prior to that, he earned $5.05 million over the course of two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. Over 115 games with Hakstol at UND, he scored six goals and 39 assists for 45 points.

The Jets will likely protect defensemen Josh Morrissey and RFA Neal Pionk for the upcoming expansion draft. This leaves them with the option of protecting one more defenseman — likely Dylan DeMelo — while making room to sign either Forbort or Tucker Poolman (from ‘Analyzing the Jets’ offseason depth chart: Free-agency needs, prospect opportunities, Kraken bait and more,’ The Athletic, 6/25/21).

Verdict: I think the Jets will likely want to negotiate a new contract with their top penalty killer — and a player who averaged 20:45 TOI despite earning just $1 million last year. That said, Winnipeg may be after some bigger fish to fortify their blue line, freeing up a player like Forbort to find a new home with the Kraken.

Tucker Poolman, Defenseman

A teammate of Forbort’s, the lesser-experienced Poolman does not statistically excel at one facet of his defensive game. That’s not to say he’s a liability, as his career plus/minus is a minus-1. If anything, his career 92.2 oiSV%, including a 93.5 oiSV% in 2020-21, may attract a few general managers.

Poolman has appeared in just 120 games, including 39 in 2020-21. His best offensive season came in 2019-20 when he scored four goals and 12 assists for 16 points in 57 games — averaging 17:27 time on ice. His ice time increased to 18:18 in 2020-21, but he registered just one assist.

Poolman only played one season for Hakstol in 2014-15, tallying 18 points and a plus-4 rating over 40 games. In 118 games at UND, he recorded 20 goals and 52 assists for 72 points and a plus-44 rating.

Verdict: The 28-year-old defenseman is coming off a three-year, $2.325 million contract with an AAV of $775,000 — just $225,000 less than Forbort. If a superior blueliner like Forbort is available, then Seattle will offer a larger contract for that caliber of player. Nonetheless, if Forbort stays in Winnipeg, then Hakstol and general manager Ron Francis will likely consider Poolman.

Aaron Dell, Goaltender

Dell just fulfilled a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Devils via the Toronto Maple Leafs. In seven games, he compiled a .857 save percentage (SV%) and 4.14 goals-against average (GAA). These numbers may look atrocious, but the Devils’ defense demonstrated its own needs for upgrades; after all, franchise hopeful Mackenzie Blackwood recorded just a .902 SV% and a 3.02 GAA.

Aaron Dell New Jersey Devils Seattle Kraken Dave Hakstol
Aaron Dell, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dell’s best season came in 2016-17 with the San Jose Sharks; the 6-foot, 205-pound netminder recorded a .931 SV% and 2.00 GAA. Those numbers and the subsequent season earned him a two-year, $3.8 million contract to back up Martin Jones.

Dell played three seasons for Hakstol at UND. His best season came in 2010-11, when he recorded a .924 SV% and 1.79 GAA with six shutouts in 40 games.

Verdict: Dell has spent the past two seasons behind subpar defenses but, at 32 years old, can likely still put up respectable numbers. I think he will need to pitch an offer close to the $800,000 he earned this past season if he is to reunite with Hakstol.

Final Thoughts

The Kraken have a few opportunities to ink reasonable deals with the UND UFAs I just discussed. None of these six players are meant for a starring role in Seattle’s inaugural campaign but can help round out the depth of the roster — while pushing other players to elevate their game and compete for a spot in the lineup.

Depending on Hakstol’s interest, Francis may also explore reuniting his head coach with players who otherwise may be off the market. Oshie, Troy Stecher, and Rocco Grimaldi may be at the forefront of those discussions.

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