The National Hockey League’s final season with only 31 teams is underway this week. And while fans of other franchises are finally seeing their star players hit the ice once again, fans of the Seattle Kraken will be looking at the games differently.
When the 2020-21 season ends, the action will truly begin for general manager Ron Francis and his team. Over the coming season, we will highlight some matchups to watch and who on each roster could be available for the Kraken to select at the Expansion Draft on July 21st.
First, a quick reminder on the rules of the Draft:
The 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft will feature the same rules as the Golden Knights did in 2017, with one exception: the Golden Knights are exempt from giving up a player. Each team gets two options in protecting its players. Either they can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender or eight skaters and a goaltender. A no-movement clause (NMC) means a team must protect the player. The Kraken must select a minimum of 14 forwards, 9 defensemen, and 3 goaltenders.
Key Eastern Matchups for Kraken Fans to Watch
With so many games scheduled each week, we’ll focus on a specific division for each article and on primetime matchups. One should remember that the divisions have changed both in name and as far as the teams within each one. This time around, we will look at some matchups from the MassMutual NHL East Division. This division includes these teams:
- Boston Bruins
- Buffalo Sabres
- New Jersey Devils
- New York Islanders
- New York Rangers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Washington Capitals
There will be few easy nights for the teams in this division, and we can expect the rivalries to heat up. It’s common knowledge that bad blood already exists between Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, and those ill feelings will be clear when they meet on Friday, Jan. 15, for the second of back-to-back matchups.
Penguins Have Little Depth Beyond Their Stars
An aging dynasty, the Penguins bowed out of the 2019-20 playoffs far earlier than many expected, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in three games. It could be that their window is closing, but with Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin still producing at over a point-per-game, the team remains a threat to win on any given night. With that said, years of chasing Cup victories have seen many high draft picks moved out as the Penguins looked to add pieces at deadline after deadline, and this tendency shows in their somewhat bare prospect cupboard.
Pittsburgh gave up one of the most significant pieces back in 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights selected starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. With Tristan Jarry taking over the #1 job after Matt Murray’s departure for Ottawa, the net is no longer a position of strength for the Penguins. With Jarry protected, the Kraken will look at forwards and defence for their selection. Some players to watch are centres Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger and defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
McCann is a former 1st round pick of the Vancouver Canucks and a consistent bottom-six scorer. The 24-year-old is under contract until the end of the 2021-22 season and will be a restricted free agent at that point, meaning his team will continue to hold his rights. McCann is what he is, and the Kraken will need to temper expectations if he’s their choice. But with a solid two-way game and 8-10 goals per season on the low end, he could play a strong supporting role on the NHL’s newest squad.
Blueger is an RFA at the end of this season, so Seattle would need to sign him to a new deal should he be their choice. He makes only $750,000; at the moment, so barring a huge year, he should still be a cheap option. The centre is 26 but only entering his third NHL season, so the full book is yet to be written on his potential. Between the two forwards, McCann seems the surer bet, but the Kraken will be looking at far more than stat lines.
Pettersson’s current contract has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in during the 2023-24 season, meaning he could be made available to Seattle. The left-shooting defender has yet to play a full 82-game season in his career, maxing out at 69 games played but has generally played well in Pittsburgh. He could be the sort of player that is ready for an opportunity with the Kraken, and his contract length (4 years remaining after this season) would give some surety to Seattle’s cap situation.
Flyers Have Some Players to Watch
The City of Philadelphia has seen its share of Stanley Cup Final appearances, but their team has also had its share of heartbreak, losing their last five Cup Final appearances going back to 1976. A roster made up of burgeoning stars and established veterans gives them as good a chance as any this season, especially given the emergence of a true starting goaltender last season in Carter Hart.
Players to which Kraken fans should pay special attention include left winger James Van Riemsdyk, defenseman Robert Hagg, and centre Scott Laughton. JVR has a steep price tag, at $7 million, for the two remaining years of his deal, and he has seen a drop off in both points and games played over recent seasons. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, though, and there is value in adding veteran voices to your dressing room.
Hagg slots in as the fourth or fifth best defender on the Flyers’ roster. He offers limited offence but posted a great plus/minus in last year’s shortened season (+14). At 25 years of age and 202 games played, he should be entering the prime of his NHL career. Whether that means he’s reached a ceiling or is ready for first pairing minutes is a decision the Kraken will have to make if he’s available on Draft day.
Laughton had a great season in 2019-20. If he had played 82 games, he would’ve had a chance to hit the 20 goal mark and, like Hagg, was a plus player (+13). He also put five pucks in the net over 15 playoff games. He is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, which could affect the Kraken’s thinking. If he doesn’t sign an extension, they may choose someone else off the Flyers’ roster and then pursue him in free agency if he’s someone they want on their team.
Two Teams Chasing Very Different Records
The other East Division matchup on Friday is one with less of an established rivalry.
The Washington Capitals will face the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, and both will be chasing milestones this season, though very different ones. While Alex Ovechkin continues his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals (he is likely to catch Marcel Dionne and close in on Brett Hull in 2020-21), Buffalo could match the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers for the longest streak of missing the playoffs, a dubious mark that looks more likely to occur now based on their new divisional opponents.
The Capitals have been a threat in whatever division they’ve belonged to for a long time. Once Ovechkin and some other key pieces were in Washington, it was less about merely making the playoffs and more about chasing the Stanley Cup, something they finally managed to do in 2018. Many of the players from that championship roster are gone, but management in the District of Columbia has found a way over the years to maintain a competitive lineup.
That strong roster is going to lose a talented player this summer. Three possibilities are right winger T.J. Oshie, centre Lars Eller, or defenseman Brenden Dillon. The Capitals won’t be able to protect them all, and any one of these players could benefit the Kraken.
Oshie, one of the key pieces in the Capitals’ Cup run, is pricey. Making $5.75 million per year, he has plenty of term left and turned 34 this past December. To date, he’s shown no signs of decline, but it will happen before his deal expires. For the Kraken, it’s the choice between potential cap issues down the road and the addition of a good offensive player with championship experience.
Eller is younger and cheaper than Oshie at 31 years of age and plays a tougher position. Making $3.5 million until 2022-23, he is a great middle-six player. Should he be required to take more responsibility in Seattle, will he rise to the challenge or be unable to tread water? Either forward could benefit a new club, but goals are the hardest thing to come by, so one leans toward Oshie.
Dillon played for the Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks before landing in Washington. Acquired for last season’s playoff push, he added little statistically for the Capitals, held pointless through ten regular-season games, and adding a single assist in the playoffs. That disappointing performance could mean the 30-year-old is seen as expendable. Dillon makes average money for a top-four defender, at $3.9 million per year, and and is under contract through 2023-34. Dillon could land in Seattle, but it really depends on the other defensemen left available across the league.
Sabres’ Players Very Familiar With Expansion
Buffalo has some interesting players on its roster that could remain unprotected in centre Zemgus Girgensons, defender Colin Miller and possibly someone like Cody Eakin. Two of these players are very familiar with the expansion draft process, having been selected by the Vegas Golden Knights back in 2017.
Girgensons seems like the prototypical NHL depth player, good for a handful of goals, though unlikely to match his career-high of 15 goals in 69 games while playing a secondary role. He’s a centre who is not great at faceoffs but can be depended on to throw his body around. He is under team control until 2022-23 and makes $2.2 million per year.
On the back end, Miller is fourth on the Sabres’ defensive depth chart. His plus/minus suffered last season, but the team as a whole has had a negative goal differential for the past nine seasons, so minuses aren’t necessarily indicative of poor individual play. With a cap hit of $3.875 million, Miller is under contract until the end of 2021-22 and was a member of the 2018 Golden Knights during their inaugural season and deep Cup run. He could bring some insight and experience to a new franchise.
Cody Eakin, another centre, could be left available just as he was by the Dallas Stars in 2017 when the Golden Knights took him. Last time around, he was something of a cap casualty, with the Stars choosing to protect a similar player with a lower price tag. Eakin signed a two-year deal with the Sabres worth $4.5 million total, almost a 50% reduction versus his last deal, and offers value at that number, even if his production has dropped off. He’ll turn 30 during the season, though, and will likely continue to decline.
We begin to get a picture of the difficult job Kraken management has in choosing their team. With so many options on each team and a season yet to play, their list will be constantly changing. A player who impresses might play his way onto a protected list, eliminating themselves from consideration altogether. Francis and company will spend most of the next 100 or so days watching game film, but they won’t know for sure who they’re picking anytime soon.