How the Seattle Kraken Have Followed Vegas' Blueprint to Expansion Success

Adam HermanJanuary 19, 2023

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 05: Jared McCann #19 of the Seattle Kraken celebrates a goal with his teammate against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Scotiabank Arena on January 05, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images)
Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Seattle Kraken approached the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, a near-unanimous narrative formed: This was not going to look anything like the Vegas Golden Knights' induction into the league.

The 2018 Golden Knights marked the first instance of NHL expansion since the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild became franchises No. 29 and 30 in 2000. That's an entire era of hockey in which the game changed in a number of ways.

This was unprecedented territory for NHL general managers. There was no blueprint to follow. Most decisions made would come with externalities that were tough to anticipate. It's not a surprise that Vegas benefitted from a number of mistakes made by others. Vegas not only built a team superior to past expansion teams, but they managed to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in their first season.

Seattle would not benefit in the same way. Four years later, teams had knowledge of what to do and, really, what not to do. Don't overpay to protect certain players, and trust the expansion team would hesitate to select players with big contracts.

Kraken GM Ron Francis did not hold back in tempering expectations for Seattle out of the gate.

"Vegas did a good job taking advantage of the rules and sort of everyone's lack of experience in that environment. Last time where GMs were more willing to, in a sense, overpay to protect certain assets, this time they learned from that and they weren't willing to make the mistakes that they made last time," he told reporters.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JULY 23: Seattle Kraken General Manager Ron Francis poses for a headshot before the 2021 National Hockey League Draft on July 23, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images)
Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The Kraken finished with the third-worst record in the league in their inaugural campaign. Now in their second season, Seattle has found its bearings. The Dave Hakstol-led team sits fourth in the Western Conference by points percentage and just two points behind Vegas (with one game in hand) for first place in the Pacific Division.

Francis had to take a more meandering path than Vegas did, but the Kraken's introduction to the NHL suddenly does not look so different.

The Sum is Greater Than its Parts

During Vegas' inaugural season, leading scorer William Karlsson finished tied for 23rd among NHL forwards with 78 points. He was nobody's idea of an NHL superstar. Fifteen of the other 30 NHL teams had at least one forward who finished with equal or better production. Yet the Golden Knights scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL. Jonathan Marchessault (T-29th), David Perron (T-44th), Reilly Smith (T-66th), and Erik Haula (T-78th) trailed behind Karlsson. Vegas were one of only four teams with five forwards among the NHL's top 90 by points.

Seattle are also compensating for a lack of high-end talent with across-the-board contributions. André Burakovsky leads the team with 37 points in 44 games; he ranks joint-65th among NHL forwards by points. But the Kraken are the only team in the NHL with 10 forwards with 20-plus points this season; Boston and Calgary are next in line with eight.

The sum result? The Kraken rank fourth in the entire NHL in goals scored and first at even strength. Defensemen Vince Dunn (more on him later) and Justin Schultz have contributed significantly to the cause as well, but Seattle's strength at forward lies within its immense depth rather than one or two All-Star talents.

Frugal Finds

The biggest explanation for how Vegas found success so early is that other teams self-sabotaged and threw talent at general manager George McPhee's feet. Marchessault, Smith, Karlsson and Shea Theodore are among the players other GMs inexplicably gift-wrapped.

Seattle was never going to benefit equally. Teams were better prepared this time around, albeit Francis was able to bring in quality players such as Jordan Eberle (NYI), Yanni Gourde (TBL) and Carson Soucy (MIN).

But Francis did come away with some steals, too. The St. Louis Blues boxed themselves in with no-trade clauses afforded to defensemen Torey Krug and Justin Faulk, so they had to expose Dunn, who is now producing at a 16-goal, 62-point pace at 26 years old. It was a massive blunder by the Blues.

Elsewhere, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall chose to protect winger Kasperi Kapanen and moved Jared McCann to Toronto. Toronto then left McCann exposed in order to protect Alex Kerfoot. In Toronto's case, it's a more defendable decision. For Pittsburgh, not so much. McCann scored 27 goals last season and leads Seattle again with 22 and is on a 44-goal pace. Kapanen, meanwhile, is frequently a subject of trade speculation due to poor play.

These frugal finds are not limited to the expansion draft. The Columbus Blue Jackets were thrilled to land Johnny Gaudreau in free agency, but it caused a salary-cap crunch that forced them to trade quality two-way winger Oliver Bjorkstrand for third- and fourth-round draft picks.

The Washington Capitals tossed Daniel Sprong to Seattle as a warm body in the 2022 deadline move that sent depth winger Marcus Johansson to Washington. Sprong, 25, has always been a high-end offensive talent but could never find consistency. With his fourth NHL team, the Dutch winger is finally figuring it out. Despite playing limited minutes, Sprong is third on the team with 15 goals and has 13 assists.

The most recent example of Seattle's analytics department succeeding is with the acquisition of Eeli Tolvanen. The 23-year-old was drafted in the first round by Nashville in 2017 and then set the KHL ablaze, but it did not translate into success with Nashville. Tolvanen's value is mainly derived from his elite shot. Yet he tallied just 23 over 122 regular season games for Nashville while he yo-yo'd up and down the lineup. Having finally given up on him, Nashville placed him on waivers on December 11. The Kraken scooped him up, and the Finnish winger sits with five goals and two assists already through 10 games in Seattle.

What is Next?

Making the playoffs is the primary goal in Seattle. Following that, if the team wants to truly mimic Vegas' early ascent to contention, then reinforcements will be mandatory. As good as Seattle has been, they are the beneficiaries of the Hockey Gods siding with them through the first half of the season. Per Evolving Hockey, the Kraken are 19th in the NHL by expected-goals percentage; based on the shot quantity and quality within their games, Seattle would be expected to have both 136 goals for and against. The league's best shooting percentage (12.3) is thrusting them to the top of the standings. Will that last? Not with the status quo.

So Francis must tap into the final aspect of his build that has lined up with Vegas'; draft pick excess. As part of all of the expansion-draft deals, Vegas gained a ton of draft picks. Seattle didn't have the same luck, but they have accumulated their own arsenal in a different way. With the playoffs out of sight thanks in part to the underwhelming expansion draft, Francis traded six players at the 2022 deadline, most prominently Mark Giordano. For his efforts, he hauled in 10 draft picks.

Aside from all of their natural draft picks in the 2023 and 2024 drafts, Seattle is approaching the trading deadline with an additional two second-round picks, plus added selections in Rounds 3, 4, 6 and 7. Cap Friendly currently estimates that the Kraken will have roughly $3.6 million in cap space with which to work at the deadline. The logical dumping of pending UFA Joonas Donskoi's $3.9 million cap hit would open up more. Simply put, Seattle should, and will, generate significant buzz. Multiple trades to reinforce the ranks seem inevitable.

Maybe the most important outcome of the Golden Knights' introduction to the NHL was a long-term product. Vegas has made it to the semifinals (or better) in three of its five seasons and looks to be a playoff contender yet again.

Seattle may not have captured lightning in a bottle initially, but the organization appears on course for a similar long-term trajectory.