The Seattle Kraken have made their 2021 Expansion Draft selections and have had several days to conduct trades. In contrast to the 2017 Vegas Golden Knights, Seattle has been relatively quiet on the trade front so far. They have made just two moves — sending Arizona Coyotes selection Tyler Pitlick to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a 2022 fourth-round draft pick, and trading Los Angeles Kings pick Kurtis MacDermid to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2023 fourth-rounder.
Through the offseason, general manager Ron Francis will likely explore several more trade scenarios with various roster pieces, in addition to signing more players; the Kraken have an estimated $30.7 million in cap space. With this in mind, I discuss the five most surprising players he selected last week, assuming they stay on the roster.
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek embraced the challenge of becoming an NHL starting goaltender in his rookie season. In relief of Ilya Samsonov, he started 36 games and recorded a respectable 2.69 goals against average (GAA) and .908 save percentage (SV%). The 25-year-old has yet to approach his prime and may develop as a strong option behind Seattle’s projected starter, ex-Panther Chris Driedger. The biggest question mark for Vanecek is his NHL experience, but with his most recent performance, he at least warrants an audition in Seattle.
That said, the Kraken missed the opportunity to add one of the best offensive defensemen available, Justin Schultz. True, Schultz perennially suffers injuries, but he still produces at a rate that no other Kraken defenseman can match.
The 31-year-old played 46 games this past season, recording three goals and 24 assists for 27 points. That equates to approximately 48 points per 82 games, 10 more than Vince Dunn’s trajectory this past season; Dunn tallied 20 points in 43 games. Schultz has one year left at $4 million, so even if he missed time this upcoming season, he would not be a gamble for Francis.
Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche
Let me be clear: This has nothing to do with how Seattle SuperSonics legend Shawn Kemp pronounced his name. I watched Joonas Donskoi for several years in San Jose and have mixed impressions. He delivered clutch moments like the overtime winner in Game 3 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Conversely, he also endured long scoring droughts and was often out-muscled by the opposition. He performed great with the Avalanche this past season, netting a career-high in goals (17) and scoring at a rate of 50 points per 82 games. However, despite netting two goals in the final two games of the regular season, he managed just one assist in his previous 14 tilts.
Many of Donskoi’s points came as the result of sliding into the top-six or on the power play. Not to say that’s a red flag, but the 29-year-old is likely to drop off considerably if inserted onto a third line. This is a possibility, considering the remaining cap Francis has to target high-profile free agents. The Kraken would then pay $3.9 million each of the next two years for a third-line forward who has likely peaked offensively.
Francis had a cheaper, younger, and equally valuable option in forward J.T. Compher. The 26-year-old had a down season offensively with 18 points in 48 games, but he turned in a strong defensive campaign. He led all Avalanche forwards with 38 blocked shots and finished second in the group in average shorthanded time on ice with 2:15, helping the Avalanche finish fifth in the league in penalty kill. Compher has one year remaining on his current contract at $3.5 million.
Dennis Cholowski, Detroit Red Wings
At 23 years old, Dennis Cholowski may still pan out as a strong depth defenseman on an NHL club. The 20th overall selection in the 2016 Draft may need a full NHL season under his belt to showcase some of his offensive brilliance from his days in the WHL. In the 2017-18 season, he appeared in 37 games for the Prince George Cougars, scoring 13 goals and tallying 26 assists for 39 points and a plus-9 rating.
On paper, Cholowski’s tenure with the Red Wings was trending down. After appearing in 52 games in 2018-19 and 36 games in 2019-20, he was called up for just 16 games this past season. His ice time also dropped from 19:13 per game in 2019-20 to just 15:54 in 2020-21.
Former Carolina Hurricanes center Morgan Geekie has the making of a promising NHL career and drew Francis’ attention in the expansion draft. Alternatively, Francis could have selected a young defenseman with higher upside than Cholowski at this point — Jake Bean, whom he drafted in Carolina in 2016. By doing this, Francis could have selected a different Red Wing; with one year remaining at $1.7 million, 27-year-old depth defenseman Troy Stecher would have made for a good selection.
Alexander True, San Jose Sharks
The Sharks presented a few low-profile but affordable options for the Kraken. Seattle could have selected depth defenseman Radim Simek, penalty kill specialist Matt Nieto, or bottom-six center Dylan Gambrell, among others. Instead, Francis drafted 24-year-old center Alexander True.
The Danish forward broke out in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the San Jose Barracuda in 2018-19, leading the team in goals (24) and points (55) in 68 games. The following season, he earned a call-up to the Sharks and appeared in 12 games, registering four assists. He played an additional seven games with the Sharks in 2021 and impressed analytically on defense; for example, Sharks goaltenders saved 97.1 percent of shots when True was on the ice.
It is uncertain whether or not True can synthesize his offensive output from the AHL with his defensive game from the NHL. Additionally, Francis already has a few young centers, most notably Geekie, who may compete for the fourth-line center role. A proven role-player such as Nieto would have made for a valuable selection. The 28-year-old winger led all Sharks forwards in average shorthanded time on ice (2:46) and has excelled at blocking shots — 274 over his 500 games played.
Haydn Fleury, Anaheim Ducks
Yes, Fleury was a first-round Ron Francis selection in the 2014 Draft. At 25, he still has the making of, at least, a bottom-pairing NHL defenseman. That said, his development has come along slowly. His ice time has not peaked since his 2017-18 rookie season, and he has not earned any significant opportunities on special teams. As a result, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell exchanged Fleury for fellow blueliner Jani Hakanpaa at the 2021 trade deadline.
Anaheim did not expose much in the way of star talent, apart from Adam Henrique and his $5.825 million cap hit for the next three years. After being traded from the Tampa Bay Lightning, 23-year-old winger Alexander Volkov impressed with the Ducks. He appeared in just eight games but, averaging 13:53 of time on ice, chipped in four goals and four assists.
He has demonstrated longer stretches of offensive upside at the AHL level as well; he recorded 55 goals and 68 assists in 195 games with the Syracuse Crunch. At one year remaining at a league-minimum $700,000, he may go down as a missed opportunity for Francis.
Ron Francis and his scouts did not just select 30 players for what they could immediately provide on the ice. They made their decisions based on the projected value of each player, through this season and into subsequent seasons. Pitlick and MacDermid had immediate value as trade assets, whereas Cholowski or Fleury have developmental value. By that, I mean players who could exceed their current performance and help create an asset surplus for Seattle.
The upcoming free agency period and training camp will truly indicate where in the organization each Expansion Draft selection fits. However, one truth has surfaced over the past week: The Kraken are taking a different approach to assembling their roster than the successful 2017-18 Golden Knights.
Nick covers the Seattle Kraken for THW. At his alma mater, Santa Clara University, he served as sports editor for the campus newspaper but carved out time to cheer on his San Jose Sharks nearby. His professional experience spans reporting, copywriting, and video production for sports, gaming, and tech brands.