Unlike the expansion draft strategy of George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights, Ron Francis and the Seattle Kraken prioritized cap space over taking on bad contracts for the purpose of acquiring more assets. This cap space was spent significantly on day one of 2021 NHL free agency, as the Kraken were able to land the services of Stanley Cup Champion Jaden Schwartz, Vezina Trophy Candidate Philip Grubauer, and former lottery pick Alexander Wennberg. They also used the pre-expansion draft unrestricted free agent negotiating window to their advantage, as they were able to agree to terms with Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, and Chris Driedger as we discussed in our post-expansion draft analysis article. Because we covered the information about the pre-expansion draft signings in our other article, this one will be more focused on what Schwartz, Wennberg, and Grubauer can provide for the Kraken. We will also discuss all of their signings (regardless of pre/post expansion draft) in terms of their arbitration analyzer analysis for the purpose of determining whether Francis and his team spent their all-important cap space effectively. Let’s get started.
Jaden Schwartz has been one of the most important members of the St. Louis Blues’ organization since they drafted him 14th overall in the 2010 NHL draft. A career 0.687 PPG winger for the franchise, Schwartz was a significant factor in the Blues 2018-19 Stanley Cup Finals run. He played in all twenty-six playoff games for St. Louis, in which he scored twelve goals with eight assists for twenty points and only registered two penalty minutes during the run. In his eighty-eight game playoff career, Schwartz is a 0.613 PPG player, which we find incredibly impressive. AB wise, Schwartz becomes Seattle’s third best player in terms of Career AB, as his career average +5.611 score trails only Yanni Gourde’s +5.64, and Carson Soucy’s +7.61. However, we have nine years of full data on Schwartz as opposed to five on Gourde, and a mere two on Soucy. He becomes Seattle’s best player in terms of AB in our opinion immediately after signing and should see first line minutes with Jordan Eberle and Yanni Gourde, when Gourde returns from injury in late-November or early-December. Now, when we ran Schwartz through our arbitration analyzer, the best contract comparable was Ondrej Palat of the Tampa Bay Lighting, who made $5.3 million in his twenty-nine-year old season with the two-time defending champion Lightning. Schwartz’s career average points/AB was 50.74 to Palat’s 50.37. This 0.37 point advantage in Schwartz’s favor could explain the 200k difference in salary between him and Palat today. Regardless, we believe this contract is a solid deal for both sides and we look forward to seeing Schwartz play against the New Jersey Devils on October 19th in person.
Alexander Wennberg has had an up-and-down career after the Columbus Blue Jackets selected him 14th overall in the 2013 NHL draft. His sophomore and junior campaigns in the NHL were tremendous production wise, as he registered forty points (eight goals with thirty-two assists) in sixty-nine games and fifty-nine points (thirteen goals with forty-six assists) in eighty games with the Blue Jackets. He then followed up these solid years with an outstanding +12.37 individual AB score in 2017-18 and thirty-five points in sixty-six games (eight goals with twenty-seven assists). His career was off to a great start in his first four years in Columbus, as he was a +4 Career AB player. However, in 2018-19 and 2019-20, his production dipped, as did his AB score, as he registered two consecutive negative individual scores for the first time in his career, with sub-thirty point seasons on top of it. This led to the Blue Jackets buying out the remaining three years of Wennberg’s six-year, $29.4 million dollar contract, making him a UFA right before the 2020-21 season. The Florida Panthers signed Wennberg to a one-year $2.25 million dollar contract the day after he was bought out, which was a big gamble for new Panthers GM Bill Zito and his team. Zito was the assistant GM in Columbus when they drafted Wennberg, so it would make sense that if any team was going to sign him, it would be Florida.
Zito was correct, as 2020-21 was Wennberg’s resurgence season, as he had twenty-nine points in fifty-six games, including a career-high seventeen goals with twelve assists. His +4.60 individual AB score in 2020-21 was his best since 2016-17, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Wennberg signed a three-year, $13.5 million dollar contract with the Seattle Kraken on day one of free agency this summer ($4.5 million AAV). When we ran him through our arbitration analyzer however, we found his closest comparable was current Rangers GM Chris Drury (Wennberg career average points/AB= 35.45 to Drury’s +35.40). During his age twenty-six season, Chris Drury made $2.5 million AAV, two million less than what Wennberg just signed for. This means we project that the Kraken overpaid Wennberg by two million to get him to sign with them, which is something they could afford to do because they had the space. They also did not get very many centers in the expansion draft, as they only selected Yanni Gourde, Jared McCann, and Mason Appleton. We expect Wennberg to play on Seattle’s 2nd line and have a solid season. This is a situation where we love the player, but not necessarily the contract; however, we look forward to seeing what Wennberg could do in an increased role.
The last big free agency signing for the Kraken was Philip Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche to a six-year, $5.9 million AAV deal. At twenty-nine years old, Grubauer has a career record of 115-64-22 (including playoffs) with 18 of those 115 wins being shutouts (16%). In these games, he has a .920 save percentage and a 2.35 GAA. The tandem of Grubauer and Chris Driedger will certainly be entertaining to watch, as we expect them to be one of the best duos in the Pacific Division and perhaps the entire league. As we wrote in our article immediately following the expansion draft, Chris Driedger posted an outstanding 14-6-3 record with the Panthers this season, registering a .927 save percentage and a 2.07 goals against average which included three shutouts. Driedger will likely be the backup behind Grubauer, as he signed a three-year, 3.5 million AAV contract with the Kraken during the pre-expansion draft UFA negotiation window allowing him to be the selection from Florida.
We discussed the Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak decisions in greater detail in our other article. For reference, we will include what we wrote in that one in this article as well. Jamie Oleksiak signed a massive five-year, $4.6 million AAV contract with the Seattle Kraken causing him to be the pick from the Dallas Stars. Oleksiak played in all fifty-six games for the Stars in 2020-21, as he scored six goals with eight assists for fourteen points in those games, averaging just above twenty minutes of ice time. Oleksiak had a -3.47 individual AB score in 2020-21 and has a -3.21 career AB score in an eight-year span. Oleksiak will play a similar role on the Kraken as he did in Dallas, and we expect him to be on their second or third defense pairing. Adam Larsson was probably the best player the Edmonton Oilers had to offer in this expansion process. He signed a four-year, $4 million dollar AAV contract with the Seattle Kraken prior to the expansion draft, allowing him to be the pick from Edmonton. This season with the Oilers, Larsson played in all fifty-six games, registering four goals and six assists for ten points. He had a -2.07 individual AB score in 2020-21, which was his best individual score since his +5.23 score in 2017-18. There was a three-year stretch where Adam Larsson registered a +4.71, +5.84, and +5.23 individual AB scores, and perhaps with the Kraken he can return to that form. He will most likely be playing on Seattle’s first or second defense pairing, and likely will average over twenty minutes per game. Looking at the Larsson contract through the arbitration analyzer, we determined his closest comparable was former Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (12.23 career average points/AB for Larsson, 12.04 for Gunnarsson). In his twenty-eight-year old NHL season, Gunnarsson made $2.9 million, which is $1.1 million less than what Larsson just signed for in Seattle. When looking at the Oleksiak contract, we find the Kraken overpaid by even more, as his closest comparable was former NHL defenseman Nick Schultz, as they had the exact same career average points/AB with 5.79. In his age twenty-eight NHL season, Nick Shultz was making $3.5 million AAV, which is $1.1 million less than what Oleksiak just signed for with Seattle.
In total, we project the Kraken overspent on Jaden Schwartz by 200k, Alex Wennberg by $2 million, Adam Larsson by $1.1 million, and Jamie Oleksiak by $1.1 million, for a total offseason overpayment of $4.2 million AAV (average of $1.05 million per player). While we understand it was probably difficult for the Kraken to attract free agents of their caliber as a expansion start-up team, there’s reason to be concerned if the current management regime makes this a habit in the future, as the cap will not increase until the billion dollar escrow is fully paid off to the NHL owners by the players as a result of the pandemic. Despite this, with the results of their free agent acquisitions and expansion draft selections, we have the Seattle Kraken projected as a +22.34 AB team next season, which is good for second best in the Pacific Division behind the Vegas Golden Knights, as well as fourth overall in the Western Conference, trailing only Las Vegas (+38.58), Colorado (+36.78), and Winnipeg (+35.21). Nonetheless, we believe the Kraken absolutely have a chance to be immediately successful like Vegas was able to do, and we look forward to following them all season. We are also incredibly excited to be a part of their franchise’s history, as we will be in attendance for the team’s first game against the New Jersey Devils (not their first NHL game played as that is against the Golden Knights on October 12th) at the Prudential Center on October 19th. Much more to come.