2021 NHL Preview: The Rise of the Seattle Kraken

Expansion teams like the Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s newest team, are supposed to be bad. A new team hasn’t had years to accumulate talent, and its players start out with no experience playing together. Almost by definition, it should take several years before any new franchise—in any professional sport—gets really good.



The Las Vegas Golden Knights upended that theory. The NHL’s 31st franchise debuted in 2017 and made the Stanley Cup Final in its first year of existence, then followed that up with three more playoff seasons (and two more conference final appearances) over the last three years. A team that didn’t exist five years ago immediately became one of hockey’s most dependable organizations.

2021 brings the debut of the league’s 32nd team and its second expansion franchise in the last five years. The Seattle Kraken will attempt to follow the Golden Knights’ example with a strong opening season. Expecting similar success out of the gate is a lot to ask of a new team, but there are a few reasons to think Seattle will be competitive within a short time of the franchise’s opening face-off. Here’s a closer look at the team’s prospects.

The expansion draft is designed to give a new team depth right away.

To stock their roster, the Kraken got to draft one player from every other team in the league except for Vegas, which was exempt on the basis of still being a new team itself. The expansion draft rules for Seattle in July 2021 were the same as those for Vegas in 2017: Other teams could “protect” seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender, or they could do away with offense/defense distinctions and lock down eight skaters of any position plus a goalie.

For an expansion team, the format cuts both ways. On the one hand, the rest of the NHL’s teams protected all of their best players. On the other hand, each team dresses 12 forwards and six defensemen every game, so the Kraken had the chance to stock their roster full of solid players from clubs around the league. The single goaltender protection limit also meant Seattle could select a couple of the league’s best backups—players who are presumably going to develop into better netminders than some teams’ current starting goalies.

In other words, every player Seattle drafted from another team is a legitimate NHL talent. The Kraken picked seven forwards who reached double-digit goals in the shortened 2020–2021 season, including two-time defending Stanley Cup champion center Yanni Gourde from the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team should have two playable goalies in former Florida Panther Chris Driedger (who had a sparkling 2.07 goals-against average in 23 games last season) and free agent pickup Phillip Grubauer.

General managers of the other NHL teams were not nearly as willing to trade with Seattle’s Ron Francis as they were with Vegas GM George McPhee four years ago, but Seattle pulled off a shrewd move by taking goalie Vitek Vanecek and dealing him back to the Capitals in exchange for a second-round draft pick.

The draft format prevented the Kraken from picking a top-end goal scorer, but there are other ways to find players who can put the puck in the net.

All the existing NHL teams protected their top scorers. That left Seattle to pick through depth players instead of those at the top of the Rocket Richard Trophy leaderboard.

But recent history says the Kraken will still have players who can score lots of goals. For one thing, many of the new Seattle players didn’t get many opportunities to be front-line scorers on their previous teams. They’ll now have a chance to step up and fill that role. Before joining Vegas in that franchise’s inaugural season in 2017, Swedish winger William Karlsson had scored 21 goals across five NHL seasons. When placed on a scoring line in Vegas, he scored 43 that year for the Knights.

That’s a huge breakout year, but it’s easy to imagine a few Seattle players posting career-best goal numbers. Keep an eye on Mason Appleton, a big forward the Kraken plucked from the Winnipeg Jets. Appleton scored 12 goals in 56 games last season after scoring eight in his first 82 with Winnipeg. Maybe he’ll continue his breakout this season.

The Kraken also made a few important free agent signings in ex-St. Louis Blues winger Jaden Schwartz (154 goals in 10 NHL seasons) and ex-Florida Panthers center Alexander Wennberg, who has seven years of NHL experience but is still young: He turns 27 in September.

The Kraken retained one of hockey’s most valuable assets: salary cap space.

GM Ron Francis has left himself more than $16 million in spending room under the NHL’s salary cap, according to data from the contract-tracking website CapFriendly. That will go down somewhat as the Kraken continue to fill out a complete NHL roster, but the point remains: Seattle has a lot of spending flexibility to add more talent. That’s flexibility most other teams lack.

Seven of the league’s 32 teams are currently over the $81.5 million cap and will have to make moves in the coming weeks to get into compliance. Another six teams have less than $3 million in salary cap space to work with, which severely limits the kinds of moves they can make. Seattle has more cap room than all but eight teams, giving Francis plenty of maneuverability both this year and over the next few seasons. Even if Seattle isn’t especially good in 2021, it’ll have room to grow.

Replicating Vegas’ instant success will be hard.

For an expansion franchise, a Stanley Cup Final appearance in the first year is a lot to live up to, and so is following that up with three more playoff runs the next three years. But the Golden Knights laid out a roadmap, and so far, Seattle seems to be in a good position to follow it. There’s no reason the Kraken can’t be a serious presence on the West Coast this season and in seasons to come.

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