2021 NHL Free Agency

Free agent moves highlight Kraken’s mixed present, future outlook

Free agent moves highlight Kraken's mixed present, future outlook
Christopher Mast/NHLI Images via Getty Images

Despite what the Golden Knights maybe tricked them into believing, it was never going to be “easy” for the Seattle Kraken. Really, it shouldn’t be annoying when they operate like most other NHL teams — meaning, often with a lack of imagination and innovation. But it is.

Look, the Seattle Kraken team-building strategy us especially nerdy types had in our heads may never have been truly realistic. And, considering a wonderful 2022 NHL Draft haul highlightedbut not limited to — Shane Wright, the Kraken might just pull off the unlikely. Maybe they really can enjoy competitive teams today, and still build up the sort of prospect pool that will reach greater heights tomorrow.

Still, it feels like the Kraken could’ve been even bolder with a short-term pain, long-term gain strategy.

At the moment, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Kraken are spending a lot of money for a team that mainly just looks … OK. That might sound nice, but it could be a lot less desirable if they’ve doomed themselves to puck purgatory. They could very well be too good for a 2023 NHL Draft that is getting hype for being tide-turning, and they may also not be good enough to matter. (Thus, they might not even make the playoffs.)

That could be about as underwhelming as a Pirates sequel that takes place in space because everyone truly ran out of ideas.

Kraken continue growing tradition of mixed-bag free agent moves

Last offseason, it was already a little frustrating that the Kraken passed on opportunities to weaponize salary cap space at the expansion draft. Trades that happened just after the expansion draft showed there was some runway for such tinkering, even if GMs “learned some lessons.”

(Let’s be honest: every year, free agency casts serious doubts over how much GMs “learn.”)

Most prominently, the Kraken added Andre Burakovsky (27 years old, $5.5 million cap hit through 2026-27). In a vacuum, that deal made some sense. Most promisingly, Burakovsky adds an element of offensive dynamism that the Kraken sorely lack.

Yet, even that Burakovsky contract feels less appealing when you ponder the larger state of the Kraken. Ask yourself: they were an Andre Burakovsky away from … what, exactly?

It’s certainly not the worst contract. As plausible as it is that Burakovsky may look worse without superstar Avalanche teammates, he may also really light it up as a go-to option. But it still looks like the sort of contract you sign when you’re knocking on the door for a Stanley Cup, not maybe climbing into the playoff bubble.

So far, the other Kraken free agent moves inspire reactions between “meh” and “why are you actively lighting money on fire?”

  • In a baffling move, they signed Justin Schultz, 32, to a two-year deal with a $3.2 million cap hit.
  • Yes, it’s noteworthy that Chris Driedger is injured. Spending $2M on Martin Jones still feels odd.

Pile those deals on some rather uninspiring contracts already on the Kraken books.

Is a bloated “middle class” the right way to go?

Jaden Schwartz is a nice player. He’s also 30, deals with injury issues, and costs $5.5M for four more seasons. Jordan Eberle’s 32, and costs that much for two seasons. Yanni Gourde, 31, is another pretty good forward at $5.167M through 2024-25.

Burakovsky and Jared McCann are nice players, and at least they’re in their prime (Burakovsky’s 27, McCann is 26). Alexander Wennberg remains a less desirable expenditure, as it sure feels like you could replicate the 27-year-old’s production for the less than his $4.5M cap hit (through 2023-24).

Ponder the group of Schwartz, Gourde, Eberle, Burakovsky, McCann, and Wennberg. Not bad, but not exactly keeping goalies and defensive-minded coaches up at night, either? It doesn’t seem like the most exciting way to invest more than $31M in salary cap space, which lurks over $35M when you add Joonas Donskoi. (Then add the polarizing-because-of-price expansion draft snag of Brandon Tanev, 30, and $3.5M for three more seasons.)

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Unfortunately, the spending doesn’t look that different on defense and in net, either.

Scroll up and down the Kraken’s roster and ask yourself: how many of those contracts would you really want?

Maybe the Kraken would cringe at the idea of trying to snag futures for problem contracts such as that of James van Riemsdyk, Blue Jackets such as Jakub Voracek/Gustav Nyquist, or even Milan Lucic. It’s unclear if those players (aside from Lucic) would be that out of place on an already-disheveled looking roster.

You may say that Kraken structure looks like a sea beast, or a creaky boat quite vulnerable to the challenging tides of an NHL season. (Or … sea beast.)

Kraken could still figure this out, though

On the same day that the Devils leaned a bit too gleefully into blaming their goalies, it’s fair to confront elephant in the room. Yes, the Kraken’s goaltending dragged their overall outlook down in 2020-21.

By Hockey Viz’s count, Grubauer, Driedger, and the Kraken goaltending crew as a whole allowed about 31 goals more than expected.

The Kraken’s (not-totally-outrageous) hope is that, while Philipp Grubauer may not be Vezina finalist material every year, he may not also be the opposite. (Too soon to say “Martin Jones late in his Sharks days”-level?)

Last season, the Kraken played like a team that would be a black hole for offense for both teams. With weak finishing on their side and that really bad goaltending, the Kraken instead were a black hole for Seattle fans hoping to see a good hockey team right away.

If you get more saves, play strong defense, and sprinkle in some goals from Burakovsky/others, maybe that’s a decent team. Perhaps even a playoff factor.

Building toward a promising harvest

The real thing to be most excited about is the future, though.

Shane Wright and Matty Beniers both project as heady two-way centers. The team already has some quirky prospects to get (maybe too) excited about, such as the impeccably-named Jagger Firkus.

They also have the fuel to deepen that prospect base even more. Right now, the Kraken have their full array of seven 2023 NHL Draft picks along with two extra second-rounders, one extra third, two additional fourths, and an extra sixth. There are some extras for the 2024 NHL Draft already, too.

For the best chance to thrive, the Kraken probably should’ve geared up for a subtle or even blatant tank (maybe debate Fail Hard for Bedard vs. other rhyme schemes). Along with that, it would’ve been nice to aim for the sort of creative trades that could make the Coyotes interesting over time.

(On a similar note: it’s fair to ask if the Kraken should be cautious about either preserving or burning Shane Wright’s entry-level contract, as other high picks have sometimes struggled to justify immediate jumps.)

[There’s some star power in their ownership group]

As is, the Kraken are at least showing potential new fans that they’re going to take some shots. With almost $10M remaining in salary cap space, the Kraken could conceivably do even more.

That may not be the optimal route, but the Kraken are doing things their way. Perhaps that way will begin to look more promising starting in 2022-23?

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    Should Canadiens worry about bad start, Bergevin’s future as GM?

    bergevin
    Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images
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    With his team off to a discouraging 0-4-0 start (three goals for, 15 against), Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin addressed the media on Wednesday.

    You can watch Bergevin’s press conference in the video above. Overall, the two most pertinent takeaways were:

    1. Bergevin said he doesn’t plan on making moves just to make moves after the Canadiens’ rough start.
    2. “In a perfect world” Bergevin would sign a new contract with the Canadiens. (He’s currently on an expiring deal as Habs GM.)

    Let’s examine the state of the 0-4-0 Canadiens in terms of this season, and also the future. We’ll also ponder if Bergevin should steer the Canadiens’ ship — and how difficult it would be for a replacement to remove Bergevin’s imprint, even if Montreal did make a change.

    How worried should the Canadiens be about their 2021-22 season?

    During Bergevin’s run, the Canadiens are no strangers to regular season struggles. When Claude Julien was coach, the team often hogged the puck in promising ways. The lack of saves and goals that resulted? Less promising. But you could still see a lane where Montreal might jump to a more consistently competitive level.

    So, there’d be comfort if the Canadiens were 0-4-0 mainly because of bad luck. And, when results are this extreme, there has been some bad luck.

    [PHT’s Atlantic Division predictions]

    In the big picture, their 5-on-5 numbers (via Natural Stat Trick) mostly match their 0-4-0 record.

    • They rank sixth-worst in the NHL with 40.74-percent of high-danger chances in their favor (22 for, 32 against).
    • Their 45.21-percent expected goals rate ranks 10th-worst.
    • Montreal also ranks seventh-worst with 44.44-percent of scoring chances.
    • In volume stats like shots, Corsi, Fenwick, they generally sit in the bottom half of the NHL.

    Not great, but four games is a molehill compared to the mountain of an 82-game season. Andrew Berkshire’s tweet captures the Canadiens’ dilemma: worry, or don’t worry?

    The extreme nature of this bad Habs start is surprising. But plenty questioned whether their 2020 Stanley Cup Final run was “for real.” All of PHT’s staff predictions placed the Canadiens outside of the playoffs.

    So, yes, it’s too early to panic. It’s not too early to wonder if the Canadiens will miss the playoffs, though.

    Should Canadiens keep Bergevin as GM? If not, would a replacement have wiggle room?

    Despite those doubts, Bergevin is right: the Canadiens shouldn’t make a panic trade.

    Unfortunately, that’s because the Canadiens don’t look like they’re a tweak or two from solving their problems. Ultimately, they’re the sum of the mistakes and successes of their GM. Which brings us to a burning question: should Bergevin remain as Canadiens GM?

    [The Canadiens are wondering if they should worry. Should these teams be excited?]

    Again, it circles back to a tougher thought. Would a new GM really have much room to operate if the Canadiens replaced Bergevin? Plenty would feel stuck with what’s already committed in long-term deals.

    • Nick Suzuki, 22, recently signed a big (mostly understandable) extension. From 2022-23 to 2029-30, he’ll carry a $7.875M cap hit.
    • Carey Price, 34, carries a $10.5M cap hit through 2025-26.
    • Yes, it’s true that Shea Weber may be done at age 36, possibly permanently moving his $7.857M cap hit to LTIR. The deal technically runs through 2025-26, and may or may not involve some cap recapture. It’s at least something to possibly deal with.
    • Brendan Gallagher is easily worth more than $6.5M now. At 29, with injuries piling up and a style that hinges on taking punishment, will that deal age well through 2026-27?
    • Josh Anderson, 27, costs $5.5M though 2026-27.
    • Jeff Petry mirrors Gallagher: worth far more than his $6.25M cap hit. Petry’s already 33, and that runs through 2024-25.
    • Beyond core-type players, Bergevin loves to indulge in meaty deals for depth players. David Savard, Mike Hoffman, Joel Edmundson, Joel Armia, Christian Dvorak, and Tyler Toffoli are all locked up for at least three years apiece. That’s a mix of older and younger players. Some are bargains; others look dicey. They all add to a picture that Bergevin’s decisions will reverberate even if he’s off to pump iron somewhere else.
    • Jonathan Drouin (two years left at $5.5M) and Jake Allen ($2.875M) could clear up some space after 2022-23, but only so much.

    [Catch up on what happened in the NHL on Tuesday]

    As far as future decisions go, one looms large.

    After the 2022-23 season, Cole Caufield’s rookie contract expires. After the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet and Suzuki extension, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bergevin wanted to be proactive with the small sniper — assuming the Canadiens don’t make a GM change.

    Would a different GM find a better balance? Would that same GM be more likely to move out a problem contract or two? Bergevin’s rarely been shy about changing directions in dramatic ways, but maybe he simply is too close to decisions like signing Armia? Or he’d fight a rebuild for too long?

    Those are the questions that linger regarding Bergevin’s status as Canadiens GM. Because, in some ways, they’re stuck with what he’s done — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright confusing.

    Uncomfortably, the Canadiens might have already missed the best window to move on from Bergevin as their mixed-bag of a GM.

    Hurricanes’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi primed for Montreal return

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi
    Getty Images

    MONTREAL — After signing a surprising offer sheet in restricted free agency with the Carolina Hurricanes in late August, Jesperi Kotkaniemi waited seven days to see if the Montreal Canadiens would match the one-year, $6.1 million deal.

    “That week went really fast,” Kotkaniemi recalled Tuesday. “Didn’t think about that too much, just try to live my normal life during that. Just enjoy the moment.”

    The Canadiens, of course, decided to walk away from the contract with Kotkaniemi despite selecting him third overall in the 2018 NHL draft. The 21-year-old Kotkaniemi and his Hurricanes will be in Montreal on Thursday night for a game that was circled the moment his move was made official.

    “That was one game on my schedule that I looked out for,” he said. “It’ll be fun to see old teammates, some fans there. It will be a blast.”

    There’s no debate that Kotkaniemi failed to live up to expectations with the Canadiens. He was demoted to the minors in the 2019-20 season and scored just five goals and 20 points during the pandemic-truncated 2020-21 season.

    Kotkaniemi did score five times and added three assists in 19 playoff games when the Canadiens made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. But he was a healthy scratch to open the first round, and again in Games 4 and 5 of the championship series before Montreal bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I have really good memories,” Kotkaniemi said Tuesday when asked if there were any hard feelings in Montreal. “Grateful that they drafted me and gave me a chance. That was a great spot to play for three years. Everyone knows they’ve got unbelievable fans, great teammates — can’t wish for a better way to start my NHL career.”

    He was, however, critical on his way out the door about how his development was handled by a team desperate for help down the middle. Kotkaniemi was passed in the pecking order by center Nick Suzuki, who recently signed an eight-year, $63 million extension.

    Kotkaniemi ended his career with the Canadiens with 22 goals and 62 points in 171 regular-season games.

    The Hurricanes are trying to transform Kotkaniemi, who indicated he’s open to signing with Carolina long-term, into a winger on their top line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

    “Winger spot is still a little bit new to me,” said Kotkaniemi, who’s without a point through two games. “They’re helping me with that every day. Getting a lot of new tips and advice. I’m just part of this team … I belong here.”

    Not that long ago, he no doubt felt the same about Montreal.

    NHL Rink Wrap: The Jack Hughes Show highlights Devils win

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Player of the Night

    Jack Hughes, Devils

    New Jersey built up a 3-1 lead thanks to Dougie Hamilton‘s goal 17 seconds into the game and Hughes’ first of the season in the second period. But the Blackhawks scored twice in a 3:27 span late in the third to force overtime. It was there the young Devils star put on a brilliant solo display to win the game and then gifted a fan at Prudential Center a game-used stick.

    Hughes’ first goal from Friday was pretty nifty, too.

    Highlights from Friday in the NHL

    The first of Carter Hart‘s rough goals felt a bit like “the nature of the beast.” The second cringe-worthy goal Carter Hart allowed, though? Pretty brutal. Elias Pettersson (again) put Hart in a bad spot, and J.T. Miller took care of the rest:

    Marcus Foligno dropped the gloves with Max Jones in the first period and had the last laugh with a game-winning goal with 7.2 seconds left to help the Wild edge the Ducks:

    Before that game, Trevor Zegras was just showing off:

    The Blackhawks and Devils honored the late Jimmy Hayes Friday night:

    Two Takeaways from NHL on Friday

    So far, so very good for Devils and Dougie

    As you can see above, Hamilton celebrated his big contract with the Devils by scoring right away. Then Jack Hughes did the rest to secure a debut win to kick off the Dougie days.

    By the simplest terms, that’s a great debut.

    But when you dig deeper … Dougie Hamilton shines even more.

    Via Natural Stat Trick, the Devils dominated shot volume with Hamilton on the ice. Whether you count blocked shots (21 Corsi For, 7 against at even-strength), or not (17-6 Fenwick For), Hamilton tilted the ice in New Jersey’s favor.

    • Hamilton’s Devils debut was strong in more than just “empty calories” ways. At 5-on-5, the Devils generated a 14-5 scoring chance advantage. As far as high-danger chances go? That’s a 7-3 mark. Just lights-out stuff.

    • The simple stats are there, too. Hamilton earned a +3 rating, with the Devils generating three goals with him on the ice at 5-on-5, and not allowing one.

    Vigneault sticks with Carter Hart after those tough goals

    After four goals — including two especially painful ones — people were making jokes at Carter Hart’s expense. Or, they were making jokes about the Flyers’ backup plan of, uh, Martin Jones.

    Of course, it’s far, far, far too early to assume Hart won’t rebound from his disappointing 2020-21 season. Plenty of people would’ve spared Hart the exposure of playing through the third period.

    Instead, Alain Vigneault took the risk of added damage to Hart’s psyche. The young goalie bounced back with 15 saves in the third period, helping Philly gain a “charity point.”

    Now, the Canucks still beat the Flyers. And Hart did allow Vancouver to score on both shootout chances. They’re not out of the woods by any means …

    … But, hey, Vigneault stood by his goalie. It might just work out.

    (Maybe Vigneault doesn’t have much of a choice, anyway?)

    Saturday’s big story

    Plenty of NHL season-openers

    The 2021-22 NHL season’s been in action since Tuesday, yet quite a few teams open things up on Saturday. Here they are:

    • Bruins host Stars at 7 p.m. ET.

    • The Blues 2021-22 season begins the way their last one ended. They’re facing the mighty Avalanche at 9 p.m. ET after Colorado swept the Blues during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    • The Sharks kick off their 2021-22 season by hosting the Jets at 10 p.m. ET.

    • Finally, the Flames begin their season against the hated Oilers at 10 p.m. ET.

    We’ll get to see a retooled St. Louis lineup, and see how a mostly-intact Flames team handles what should be a high-pressure season. Should be a fun, busy Saturday in the NHL.

    Friday’s NHL scores

    Devils 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)
    Canucks 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
    Wild 2, Ducks 1

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Senators sign Brady Tkachuk to 7-year, $57.5 million contract

    Brady Tkachuk Contract
    Matt Zambonin, Getty Images

    It may have taken until the start of the regular season, but the Ottawa Senators finally managed to get Brady Tkachuk signed to a long-term contract.

    The team announced on Thursday morning that it signed Tkachuk, a restricted free agent, to a massive seven-year, $57.5 million contract. That deal carries a salary cap hit of $8.2 million per season, exceeding Thomas Chabot for the largest cap number on the team. It also also firmly places Tkachuk as part of the team’s long-term core alongside Chabot, Drake Batherson, and Tim Stutzle.

    It is a deal where pretty much everybody gets what they wanted.

    The Senators get the long-term contract they wanted and secure one of their franchise players for the long-term, buying out three years of unrestricted free agent eligibility. They also managed to hold firm on their signing bonus stance and handed out a contract that includes zero signing bonuses, something no player on the roster has.

    [Related: Ottawa Senators 2021-22 NHL Season Preview]

    Tkachuk wins by getting a massive dollar amount. He will make $4 million in actual salary this season, $6.5 million next season, before ballooning to $10.5 million between the 2023 and 2026 seasons.

    Tkachuk is not expected to play in the Senators’ season opener on Thursday night after missing all of training camp and the preseason.

    He is the Senators’ top offensive player while his game is built around driving possession and generating a ton of shots (nearly four per game). Over the first three seasons of his career he has been insanely consistent offensively, scoring at a 25-goal, 52-point pace per 82 games. When we saw consistent, we do mean consistent. His goals per game average each season has been 0.31, 0.30, and 0.30 while his point per game averages have been 0.63, 0.62, and 0.64.

    That is very good production, especially for a player that is still just entering his prime years. The key for the Senators is going to be if he takes a big step forward offensively and improves on that. Because if he keeps maintaining that pace and never improves on it the Senators are going to be paying superstar money for a very good player. The hope has to be that all of that shot volume coincides with the occasional shooting percentage spike to produce a couple of superstar level seasons.