They won’t admit it, but there is a decent amount of pressure facing the Seattle Kraken ahead of their first year as an NHL franchise.
Their road to the Stanley Cup starts tomorrow with the expansion draft, where Ron Francis and several of his closest advisors will select 30 unprotected players from around the league — except Vegas. Just a few short years ago, the expectations facing a team ahead of its first season would be low, really low. However, given how strongly the Vegas Golden Knights have performed in their first four seasons, it’s fair to assume Seattle hockey fans would expect similar levels of production in the Kraken’s first year.
Sure, there will be the usual “we’re just happy to be here” goodwill from the fanbase, but it’s undeniable that if the team doesn’t see the same levels of success as Vegas, Kraken fans would be disappointed. Currently, oddsmakers are giving Seattle +5000 (50-to-1) odds to win the 2022 Stanley Cup — the 12th-lowest in the league. However, when the odds were first revealed, the Kraken were listed at 100-to-1 — tied for the lowest in the league.
However, if the expansion draft is as favorable for the expansion team as some people believe it to be, why aren’t the Kraken closer to the top of these Stanley Cup odds leaderboards?
“The expansion draft, they came up with a new format when Vegas came into the league, and it’s more friendly to the team that’s coming into the league because they don’t want to put a team in a position to fail, and the fanbase goes through losing season after losing season,” said Sportsnet and host of Hockey Night in Canada’s Dan Murphy. “The most egregious [GM] was Dale Tallon in Florida who wanted to protect [Alexander] Petrovic, who I think had not even played 100 games in the league, and ended up giving away [Jonathan] Marchessault and [Reilly] Smith, which is two thirds of their first line in Vegas. It’s going to be interesting to see if the GMs have learned their lessons from that expansion draft, and if they want to just take their medicine and lose one player and be done with it.”
In order to get to the bottom of this idea, Deadspin also reached out to EJ Hradek, co-host of NHL Now on NHL Network, to get his thoughts on what the expectations for Seattle should be.
“I think there’s a good chance that they won’t be at the very bottom of the league.” said Hradek when asked where he believed the Kraken would finish in their first season. “I think they have a chance to bring in good players and to be a competitive team somewhere in the middle of the pack.” Hradek went on to state that he would not have bet a lot of money on the Golden Knights to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year.
“I don’t think the NHL thought Vegas would be lightning in a bottle like that,” Murphy added. “I don’t remember anyone saying after they made their picks, ‘Oh boy — Vegas has got a contender right away.’ Nobody said that.”
Hradek agreed with that, adding that now, because of Vegas’s success, the Kraken face much more pressure than they would have had Vegas become a middle-of-the-road team.
“I will say, the ownership groups in Vegas and Seattle are much different. Bill Foley, the owner [in Vegas], he’s trying to win yesterday. He said as much when, after the draft, he said he expected to win a Stanley Cup in 5 to 6 years. Seattle’s ownership group is a different group. Ron Francis is the general manager who, in his previous role as the general manager for the Carolina Hurricanes, was someone that seemed to be more patient and was looking to build over the long term, but that’s with an established franchise that didn’t have the opportunity that [Seattle] has.”
Seattle may have an even better opportunity to succeed early than Vegas did. The Kraken will have the second pick in the 2021 NHL entry draft. In their first year (2017), Vegas had to wait until the 6th pick to select the franchise’s first-ever draftee. However, according to Hradek, while this is absolutely a huge advantage for Seattle, it may not be as huge as you’d think.
“This is a particularly tricky draft. With the pandemic, it was uneven in how much the prospects got to play depending on where they were from and what league they played in. I think it was a difficult year for scouts to really get an even look, so it’s hard to say exactly how good a pick [the Kraken] might get at number two. We’d probably have a better idea under different circumstances.”
Many analysts have also said pointed out that while Seattle was given a road map detailing how to handle the expansion draft, several teams across the NHL now have a better understanding of the draft and are better prepared for Seattle than they were for Vegas four years ago. With a better understanding of the players new teams might be eyeing or mistakes that each team made ahead of the expansion draft, several teams are unlikely to give Seattle the tools necessary to build a ‘Vegas-esque’ team. The backbone of Vegas’s inaugural season playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals was built on Minnesota Wild (Erik Haula, Alex Tuch) and Florida Panthers (Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith) players. Those two teams were willing to give up several assets in order to protect more players, a strategy that didn’t end up working too well. Thus, teams in similar situations this time around would likely avoid making similar decisions.
All this begs the question: “If Seattle does manage to reach the same heights as early on as Vegas has, will that constitute grounds to change the expansion draft format, should the league look to expand further?” While Hradek does not anticipate the NHL to look into expansion for a while now, he believes that since owners pay a lot of money to get into the NHL, they want an opportunity to be competitive right away. Being a competitive team greatly increases a team’s staying power potential. Look no further than the series of expansion teams the NHL put forth near the turn of the 21st century. Says Hradek “You know, the Atlanta Thrashers ended up moving to Winnipeg because they were never really good. They made the playoffs once and they were swept. I don’t care where you are, whether it’s Atlanta or Moosejaw. If you don’t have any tangible success for fans over the course of a decade, it’s hard to sustain a professional sports franchise.”
There’s no doubt the NHL liked the fact that Vegas came in and was competitive immediately. That drastically helped league-wide viewership and sales, so you can imagine how much the league wants to see Seattle succeed as well. So, for those of you out there wanting to see a change in the expansion draft format — sorry, it’s not happening.
It’s also fair to look to the NBA for lessons in how (not) to tweak expansion efforts, Murphy said: “I live here in Vancouver and we had the Grizzlies here in the NBA, and they weren’t allowed to pick first overall for five seasons. So they missed out on Yao Ming, and Tim Duncan, and all these players that they could have had, but they weren’t set up for success and they lost for seven years in a row, and then they moved to Memphis. You don’t want that. You don’t necessarily want an expansion team winning the Stanley Cup in year one, but you want there to be excitement in the market that the team can win some games.”
The expansion draft format has seen its fair share of criticism ever since the Golden Knights made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. However, Vegas’s success cannot be solely attributed to the expansion draft format. With the knowledge of the previous draft now in hand, it’s unlikely that Seattle accomplishes the same feats that Vegas did in their first few years. While Seattle definitely has an opportunity to succeed right away, it would take an incredible amount of luck as well as high-level scouting and strong coaching to pull off. Is it possible? Of course, but don’t think for a second that Seattle already has a path to the Stanley Cup Finals carved out for them.