Struggling Young Players for Kraken to Target in the Expansion Draft

With the expansion draft looming in only a few short months, the Seattle Kraken have a lot of decisions left to make. While Seattle gears up to make their selections, the vulnerable teams are likewise determining their protection lists. Given the modest number of players that a team can protect, Seattle will have their pick of some very good NHL players. For a quick recap of the expansion draft protection rules: each team can choose to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. For most teams, this format leaves high-impact players available for Seattle’s taking.

As we saw in the 2017 Vegas Expansion Draft, even seemingly inconsequential picks can go on to have major impacts. Both Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore, both of whom were initially highly-touted first-round draft picks whose stocks had lowered considerably, have grown into high-end players for the Vegas Golden Knights. Even Tomas Nosek, who did not seem likely to get much playing time, has become a bottom-six fixture for the Knights.

In that vein of thinking, I tried to identify a handful of players who could find themselves in similar circumstances. Seattle should be able to find some young gems across the league whose teams simply cannot find a proper fit for them. If the following players are indeed unprotected, as I suspect they will be, Seattle should take a long look at them, even if some established veterans are available.

Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean

The Hurricanes have two young defensemen that fit the aforementioned archetype. Both Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean have struggled to lock down regular spots on a stacked defense corps in Carolina and could benefit from a change of scenery.

Haydn Fleury Hurricanes
Haydn Fleury, Carolina Hurricanes, Mar. 1, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fleury was drafted seventh overall in the 2014 NHL Draft but has struggled relative to his high draft position. He has played in 151 NHL games but never more than 67 in a single season. He has struggled mightily this season, with no points in 21 games played, along with a -1.3 WAR (wins above replacement: a comprehensive statistic from Evolving Hockey that attempts to quantify the number of wins an individual player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player). That said, Fleury had far stronger results in the previous two seasons, with a combined 15 points in 65 games, along with a total of 1.0 WAR.

It is likely that Fleury’s poor play this season can be partially attributed to the difficult circumstances in which he finds himself on the Hurricanes’ blue line; that is, playing on the third pair with another inexperienced blueliner – Carolina’s 2016 13th overall selection Jake Bean.

Jake Bean Carolina Hurricanes
Jake Bean, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bean has been far more productive than Fleury this season, his first with a full-time NHL role, amassing one goal and seven points in 15 games. His WAR is still negative but considerably better than Fleury’s, at -0.2. Bean’s NHL sample size is very small, but his AHL play is very encouraging. In fact, he is the reigning winner of the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman.

It looks likely that Seattle will have their pick of these two players, given the state of Carolina’s defense corps. Dougie Hamilton (if the Canes re-sign him), Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slavin will almost certainly be protected. Barring the eight skater alternative route, Seattle is assured of a selection between two promising young defenders.

Victor Mete

The Montreal Canadiens have another young defenseman at whom Seattle should take a long look. The 100th overall pick in 2016, Victor Mete is an intriguing blueliner that could be a great addition to the Kraken.

Victor Mete
Victor Mete, February 20, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although Mete entered the NHL in 2017, he has struggled to earn a spot in the lineup this season with only five games played, failing to collect any points. As a result, it was reported early on in the season that Mete had requested a trade.

Mete’s scoring woes have been well-documented, as it took him 127 games to score his first NHL goal. That said, he did manage four goals along with seven assists in 51 games last season. He’s had an unsuccessful 2021 campaign, with -0.1 WAR but has been far better in the past. In fact, he totaled 2.1 WAR in just 49 games in the 2017-18 season, his rookie year.

Mete is often criticized for his inability to win board battles. At just 5-foot-9 inches, it is hardly surprising that he tends to get outmuscled. However, he offers immense value elsewhere. His top-end skating ability makes him a dangerous player on the rush and among the best in the league in transition.

With the change in scenery that he evidently desires, Mete has the potential to take off. Seattle will have plenty of options when it comes to the Canadiens, but Mete should be heavily considered.

Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

The 48th overall pick in 2014, Aubé-Kubel is an interesting option at forward for the Kraken. Although he took longer than most to arrive in the NHL, he has made the most of his opportunities with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel Philadelphia Flyers
Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Playing primarily in the bottom six, Aubé-Kubel has amassed point totals one should expect from a player in that position. After totaling seven goals and fifteen points in 36 games as a rookie last season, he’s collected two goals and seven points in 22 games in his sophomore year.

Much like the players discussed above, Aubé-Kubel has suffered a dip in his play this season. After an impressive 1.1 WAR in 2019-20, he has -0.2 WAR this season. However, it is not hard to imagine him returning to his rookie season form, especially considering his unique skillset — Aubé-Kubel is an incredibly effective forechecker.

Charlie O’Connor, a Flyers writer for the Athletic, conducted a project in the 2019-20 season during which he and the rest of The Athletic Philadelphia tracked forechecking for the Flyers. (from ‘How important was the Flyers’ forecheck to their success in 2019-20?,’ The Athletic, 08/08/2020) In doing so, O’Connor concluded that Aubé-Kubel was the most effective forechecker on the team. With him on the ice, the Flyers recovered 51.91% of overall dump-ins and 56.55% of dump-ins on which Aubé-Kubel played the role of the supporting forechecker (the second or third man in). He also was fantastic at breaking up rush chances, as opposing teams failed to transition cleanly into the offensive zone 82.44% percent of the time, a ridiculous total.

Although these metrics are from a short 36-game sample for Aubé-Kubel, forechecking so effectively is a relatively unique ability and one that is likely to continue. Placed in a position to succeed on the Kraken, he could help higher-end offensive players thrive, complementing them with his puck retrieval skills.

Final Thoughts

There is no shortage of talented young players struggling to solidify an NHL lineup spot. The best lesson to be drawn from the Golden Knights’ early success is that players can blossom upon being offered a bigger role. Although there will be plenty of established veterans available, I believe that Seattle will be best served by building for the future. The youth movement has taken the NHL by storm, and the Kraken should look to take full advantage.

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