Kraken shouldn’t chase a big-name free agent like Gaudreau

Kraken shouldn't chase a big-name free agent like Gaudreau
Christopher Mast/2021 NHLI via Getty Images
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Emboldened by the instant success of the Golden Knights, the Kraken didn’t approach their first NHL offseason like a typical expansion team. They spent like any other NHL team striving for playoff success, making big bets in the free agent market.

Unfortunately, in their first season, the Kraken ended up looking very much like an expansion team. Deep down, they’d probably accept a do-over with free agent moves such as the bold, ill-fated Philipp Grubauer signing.

It’s no fun to endure setbacks and mistakes. Yet, it’s the nature of the beast. The key is to take the right lessons from the wrong moves. If you fail to get the memo, you could just keep making the same mistakes.

That thought resonates as rumors abound that the Kraken may once again add a significant free agent or two.

Kraken rumored to be interested in making a free agent/offseason splash

Both Pierre LeBrun and Elliotte Friedman floated the possibility that the Kraken might jump in the mix if the Flames fail to keep Johnny Gaudreau off of the free agent market.

Even if Gaudreau stays in Calgary, the Kraken have given off signals that they will wade into the free agent market again.

“Our plan is certainly to be aggressive again in free agency this summer,” Kraken GM Ron Francis said around the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, via Seattle’s KJR.

Beyond Gaudreau, Friedman also connected the Kraken to possible interest in Nazem Kadri.

The multi-million dollar question, though, is should the Kraken really be testing those free agent waters?

Goaltending doomed Seattle, but it wasn’t the only problem

No doubt about it, goaltending was a big problem for the Kraken during their first season. When your goaltending stinks, it tends to make other problems look even worse.

But it would be foolish for the Kraken to think they’re a Johnny Gaudreau or Nazem Kadri away from solving their problems. Instead, it feels like being bled dry by a Theranos investment after getting burned pouring funds in The Fyre Festival.

By underlying measures, the debut version of the Kraken played sturdy defense … and that’s about it. Their Team RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey captures the gist: good defense, bad goaltending, weak offense, and suspect special teams.

Kraken 2021-22 Evo RAPM chart not free agent material
via Evolving Hockey

No doubt, Gaudreau and/or Kadri could help, but would they help enough?

Let’s not forget that a better-equipped Flames team missed the playoffs with Johnny Gaudreau on its roster as recently as the 2020-21 season. Even if the goal is modest (making the playoffs, not actually contending), this strategy could easily fail.

Truly, it carries the sweaty essence of someone desperately trying to cut in line. Also, has Dave Hakstol inspired overwhelming confidence that he can steer a major turnaround? Hakstol’s teams missed the playoffs in three of his five NHL seasons, and he’s never won a playoff series.

Pressure to deliver vs. ‘The honeymoon period’

When big money is involved, the pressure mounts. People usually don’t want to wait for returns on their investments. It’s the sort of atmosphere that fosters fake blood test results and possibly fake sandwiches of sadness.

The Kraken dropped a $650 million expansion fee to join the NHL party. They don’t want to wait for the good times to roll.

Perhaps the best course of action is to preach patience by emphasizing a losing team that might churn out nice profits, which ideally would make way for a winning team making bigger buckets of money? (Maybe use the word “loot” to pander to Jerry Bruckheimer?)

Look, it’s not great to have unhappy fans. Especially when you’re trying to build a fanbase.

Still, in articles about the Kraken’s early struggles, you may note that the team commanded multi-year season ticket commitments.

Kraken should instead ‘build’ like a rebuilding team — by weaponizing salary cap space

Take your lumps (and give others some lumps) with someone like Lucic?

Via Cap Friendly, the Kraken possess almost $23M in salary cap space. At the moment, it sounds like that money’s burning a hole in their pocket. Management may decide to splurge, and hope for the best.

There might be a better long-term use of that money. Rather than spending like a contender with a free agent splurge or two, the Kraken should exploit desperate contenders who need to clear up salary cap space.

Heck, their wisest course might not be to snatch Johnny Gaudreau from the Flames. Instead, maybe they can make a killing helping them keep Gaudreau?

What kind of assets would the Flames cough up to get Milan Lucic‘s $5.25M cap hit off of the books? As a reminder, the Maple Leafs gave up a first-rounder to bribe the Hurricanes to absorb Patrick Marleau’s $6M cap hit. Frankly, rebuilding teams should explore value like that.

Obviously, Lucic isn’t the force he once was. That said, he also isn’t as expensive as his cap hit implies. While Lucic’s pre-salary-retention cap hit is $6M, he only carries a $3M signing bonus and $1M in base salary next season.

Now, the Kraken could also trade for a costly player who may produce more immediate results.

Edmonton Oilers v Calgary Flames - Game Five
If you can’t beat them, beat them up? (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Best of both worlds with a JVR-type experiment?

James van Riemsdyk may rank as my favorite such example. For a Flyers team looking to be bold, JVR’s $7M cap hit is likely quite annoying. However, he’s only owed a $1M salary bonus and $4M in base salary.

At this stage, the 33-year-old isn’t a $7M winger. Look past that, and JVR can still be valuable.

During the 2020-21 season, James van Riemsdyk tied Claude Giroux for the Flyers team lead at 43 points. In grand JVR fashion, he scored inefficiently despite limited minutes.

Even in a dreadful 2021-22 season for the Flyers, JVR generated 24 goals (38 points in 82 games). In a contract year, it’s not outrageous to ponder James van Riemsdyk being a massive upgrade for a weak Kraken power play.

Hockey Viz captures how badly the Kraken power play could use a net-front presence.

Kraken power play Hockey Viz JVR
via Hockey Viz

Ultimately, JVR’s performance wouldn’t be the most important thing. Really, there are at least three layers to the James van Riemsdyk trade parfait:

  • First, you get something from the Flyers for taking on that salary cap hit. Maybe they’d be confident enough to give you their 2023 first-rounder? The Kraken could make that easier to stomach by sending one of their many mid-round picks back to Philly.
  • Then, JVR could help the Kraken. He’s in a contract year, so motivation shouldn’t be hard to come by.
  • During the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, a contender could see some real appeal in nabbing James van Riemsdyk, especially if the Kraken retain some salary.
  • Of course, the Kraken could also just keep JVR if he’s a smash success.

Finding value beats over-paying

Now, not every scenario is as appealing as a JVR trade. But the point remains: the Kraken should be taking advantage of the desperation of others. They shouldn’t be the desperate ones.

Just look at how the Avalanche and Lightning were built.

The Avalanche exploited the Islanders’ salary cap desperation to land Devon Toews for pennies on the dollar. They bought low on Nazem Kadri.

When these teams did dip into free agency, it wasn’t often to spend money on a big name with a bloated price. The Avs went after a reclamation project in Valeri Nichushkin. The Lightning supplement their core with cheap veterans like Corey Perry.

[Power Rankings: Top potential free agents]

Think of the biggest free agent moves in the salary cap era. How many of those contracts were worth it?

Yes, it’s tough to put together a winning team. Don’t let the Golden Knights fool you; it’s especially difficult to build one from nothing. But the one advantage the Kraken should have is a relatively clean slate. The Kraken already squandered precious salary cap space by spending too much too soon with free agents.

They’d be much wiser to go off the beaten path and practice patience. If they don’t, they risk speeding over the same potholes that have left so many other teams sputtering on the side of the road.