SEATTLE KRAKEN

Salk: Who Seattle Kraken can target in crucial offseason

May 29, 2024, 5:59 PM

Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis...

General manager Ron Francis of the Seattle Kraken during the 2023 NHL Draft. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Once again, the Seattle Kraken have completed the “easy” part. They’re good at that.

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The easy part was selling out the first three seasons based on the hype and novelty of an unfamiliar sport in a spectacular new building. The easy part was an expansion draft full of mostly mediocre-to-good players that they got mostly right. The easy part was a pair of drafts where Matty Beniers and Shane Wright were somewhat obvious selections. The easy part was replacing coach Dave Hakstol with former Stanley Cup-winner Dan Bylsma.

Well, maybe none of those things were quite as easy as I just made them out to be, but I think they are going to be a whole lot simpler than what comes next.

For that, it might be helpful to think of the team as simultaneously being pulled in a few different directions. On one hand, they know that there are very few shortcuts in sports. Other than the immediate success of the Vegas Golden Knights, most championship teams are built over time with a solid nucleus that has been developed by the organization. Not to downplay the importance of trades and free agent signings (both can play enormous roles), but generally you need to be solid from the bottom up. Unfortunately, that takes time (and a bit of luck and skill). And the Kraken might not have as much time as they’d like.

After three years and only one playoff appearance, the novelty has worn off just as fans are being asked to renew their season tickets (many of which were sold as a three-year commitment). Just seeing the inside of the new building may have been enough to sell out then, but fans are always going to demand a competitive product, and many will bail if they are leaving the arena disappointed too often.

Adding additional pressure, the NBA is soon to announce its new media rights deal, which should be quickly followed by the naming of expansion franchises in Vegas and Seattle. While the return of the Sonics is great for Seattle sports fans and for the ownership group that will likely own both teams (and have more dates booked at its very expensive building), it does represent another challenge for the Kraken: Competing with another popular team in town.

Related: Potential Sonics return may have played role in Seattle Kraken coach change

SportsNet Hockey insider Elliotte Friedman suggested last week that those factors may have led to pressure on general manager Ron Francis to replace Hakstol. If that’s true, the pressure to quickly build a winner should be even greater. And while I wasn’t the biggest Hakstol fan (and I completely support his dismissal), even I would acknowledge that no coach could have brought this collection of talent to a Stanley Cup.

So while the Kraken may have finished the easy part, the hard part is yet to come. How does this team put enough talent on the ice to truly contend?

To do that – in the time allotted before season ticket decisions are made and the Sonics inevitably return – is going to require something beyond waiting and hoping that the young players turn into stars. It is going to require something uncomfortable.

The Kraken have some nice pieces. Matty Beniers is a second-line center on a championship team. Jarred MacCann and Jordan Eberle are top-six forwards. They have a core of defensive pieces that do their job well. What they are missing is true, top-tier offensive talent. And that, as you might imagine, is in short supply.

Teams with players like Connor McDavid, Austin Matthews and Nathan MacKinnin don’t just give them away. So if you want that kind of talent, you need to take a risk. Maybe it’s an injury risk like Vegas took on Jack Eichel, or a monetary one like Columbus and Johnny Gaudreau, or a personality one like Jonathan Huberdeau in Calgary. Some of these have worked out like Eichel, some have not like Gaudreau and Huberdeau.

Here are two names that could be available this summer and would offer at least the possibility of top-line talent.

Mitch Marner, RW Toronto Maple Leafs

Marner is 27 years old and possesses all kinds of talent. The former No. 4 overall pick is an excellent passer and knows how to put the puck in the net. He has scored more than 93 points three times in his career and he does that with responsible defensive play (as evidenced by his career plus-110 plus-minus rating and only one season with in the negative).

And yet, it has never been good enough in Toronto. In fact, that might be the only reason he is potentially available at all. Toronto is like Boston before 2004 but on steroids. Hockey means everything, the team never wins, and fans are incredibly hard on their stars who live life under the microscope and in the pressure cooker. Along with Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander, Marner was expected to end the 55-year drought. It hasn’t happened and it hasn’t been particularly close.

So maybe a fresh start 3,000 miles away in a city just starting to understand this great sport is exactly what Marner needs to live up to his promise. It would take a lot to pry him out of Toronto (he has a no-trade clause and plenty of other teams might have the exact same thoughts on a fresh start with less pressure), but he would be my top choice.

Jake DeBrusk, LW Boston Bruins

DeBrusk’s name was brought up initially by Friedman, who thought he might be a good fit. Unlike Marner, DeBrusk is a free agent this summer. Whether or not he makes it to the open market remains to be seen. In an interview with 98.5 the SportsHub, Bruins GM Don Sweeney said of DeBrusk: “Negotiation is a two-way street,” Sweeney said when asked about DeBrusk and a ‘path’ towards a deal. “We took an aggressive position with Jake. No different than other players that have chosen not to re-sign and explore, that’s within his right, certainly at this time of the year. Do I see a path [to DeBrusk staying]? Yeah, there’s a path, I told him that at our exit meetings.”

So there is at least a chance he makes it to the market, but he also comes with plenty of risk. Despite plenty of talent, he has clashed with some coaches and even demanded a trade at one point (though that never came to be). His production has also varied enough from season to season to wonder if there is a real star inside or just a complimentary piece. He has charitably been called “moody” but also has tremendous speed and enough talent to make a difference. Plus, he only costs money, none of the prospects it would take to land Marner.

So there are two names to watch as summer approaches and the Kraken get to work on improving this roster. With Hakstol in the rearview mirror, the attention now turns to Francis. Can he improve this roster and make a contender? Is he willing to abandon his famous patience and take some risk? Can he lure top tier-0talent to a city just beginning its hockey journey?

The hard part is yet to come.

More on the Seattle Kraken

• Jessica Campbell could be Seattle Kraken candidate as assistant, new coach says
• Dan Bylsma rediscovers the joy in coaching, lands Kraken job
• Seattle Kraken name Dan Bylsma as their next head coach
• Coaching carousel spins fast in NHL: Job security just doesn’t exist
• Where the Seattle Kraken are picking in the NHL Draft

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