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In an era where cap space is king, Kraken draft with the long game in mind

They carefully studied the menu and passed on the steak.

Not to mention the sizzle.

The Seattle Kraken looked at Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, James van Riemsdyk, Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene and others during the expansion draft process and said ‘No thanks, I’m good.”

In doing so, the NHL’s newest franchise put itself in pole position to race towards a new epoch of roster construction. The easy takeaway from Friday’s made-for-TV event was that Ron Francis left talent on the table. But the most significant thing he did was avoid putting a bad contract on the books.

“We think that’s a valuable thing to have right now, especially in a COVID environment with the flat cap,” said Francis, the Kraken’s general manager. “We went through our choices and there were some good players that were out there; maybe we weren’t comfortable with the cap hit on some of them, so we tried to draft the best team possible we could and still keeping our cap space available just to hopefully do some things as we move forward.”

In the very near term that will mean spending some money when the free-agent market opens next Wednesday. They staked claim to defencemen Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson, plus goaltender Chris Driedger, during this week’s UFA interview period and are expected to take a run at Jaden Schwartz, among others, on the open market.

But Seattle showed patience during the 72-hour period where the rest of the NHL sat and waited on the sidelines while it selected 30 players.

Price was the most difficult pass of them all because of what he represents: A generational performer with deep ties to Washington State coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

He’s not the kind of name you expect to find exposed in an expansion draft, but Francis couldn’t look past the $10.5-million cap charge he’d be absorbing for each of the next five seasons had he claimed Price rather than 22-year-old defenceman Cale Fleury.

It is a sign of quickly shifting sands.

Just as NHL general managers once had to adjust to the introduction of a hard salary cap in 2005, the industry is still coming to grips with the aftershocks that will be felt following the COVID event. The cap ceiling used to rise on a predictable schedule each year. Now it is locked flat because of the pandemic, guaranteeing that large contracts won’t age as gracefully as they were originally intended.

Birthed into that environment, the Kraken’s front office wisely recognized that their advantage was rooted in protecting cap space. They took on less than $55-million in total cap commitments, with Jordan Eberle ($5.5-million AAV) and Yanni Gourde ($5.166-million AAV) the only players with meaningful term and dollars claimed in expansion.

The real story of the expansion draft was what Francis chose not to do — looking past several proven performers while adding the likes of Gavin Bayreuther, Kurtis MacDermid, Kole Lind and Alex True.

He opened the wallet for Oleksiak, in particular, by signing him to a $23-million, five-year contract. But he also fought like hell to preserve the Kraken’s ability to pursue bargain free agents, add future assets as a potential go-between in retained salary transactions and remain nimble in an uncertain marketplace.

“We’re excited about what we have right now. We feel very fortunate we were able to get Driedger and Larsson and Oleksiak to sign with us, so that was a nice boost,” said Francis. “A lot of opportunities to sort of tweak our lineup over the next four or five months, and we’ll look to try and take advantage of that if we can.”

Seattle is playing the longer game.

It didn’t leverage a single trade out of the expansion selection process and it’s only believed to have emerged from the draft with one or two moves ready to complete when the league’s roster freeze lifts Thursday.

But the Kraken still have a surplus of defencemen to deal away — selecting 12 on Wednesday — and a surplus of cap space to maneuver around. That will likely prove even more valuable than it first appears on the surface.

The times are changing.

It wasn’t enough for the Kraken to simply try and mimic what the Vegas Golden Knights accomplished in expansion four years ago.

“We talked about that going into this — this was going to be so much different than what Vegas went through,” said Francis. “Vegas did a good job taking advantage of the rules and sort of everyone’s lack of experience in that environment. But the minute that one was done, they knew we were coming in. It was supposed to be three years. It ended up four years, so they had a lot more time to prepare for us. …

“And I think 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.”

Even more importantly the Kraken didn’t make any mistakes of their own.

We live in a time where cap space is king. And Seattle will soon be calling the shots from the throne.

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