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How the next few weeks can set the tone for the Kraken’s second season

The Kraken celebrate a preseason win against Calgary on Sept. 29 in Calgary, Alberta.  (Tribune News Service)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

While the Seattle Kraken’s sophomore season is still months away, events in coming weeks could largely shape how that second campaign unfolds.

Kraken general manager Ron Francis heads to the NHL entry draft in Montreal next week armed with a plethora of picks that may not all be used on youthful prospects. The league’s “buyout” period for teams looking to unload player contracts begins Friday, launching a summer time frame of wheeling and dealing with Francis already on record saying he’ll be eyeing trades and signings to bolster his NHL squad.

The Kraken finished their debut campaign with the league’s third-worst record at 27-49-6, owing largely to a lack of scoring, inconsistency in their goaltending and limitations in the defense quickly exiting the zone. Francis acquired some of his draft picks at the March trade deadline and, coupled with ample salary cap space, has vowed to use them to get deals done.

“I think with our movement at the deadline and the cap space, we do have the ability to acquire (players) whether it’s via trade, via free agency,” Francis said as the offseason began. “So, we’ll certainly be looking at those areas for sure to try to boost our lineup.”

Some of that could start with deals forged in the coming days as teams examine how their player contracts fit within an NHL cap limit of $82.5 million. Francis is projected by the CapFriendly website to have just under $23 million in space, though some could go toward upcoming contract increases for restricted free-agent NHL forwards Ryan Donato, Morgan Geekie, Karson Kuhlman, Kole Lind, Daniel Sprong and defensemen Haydn Fleury.

There are also three unrestricted free agents at the NHL level in forwards Victor Rask and Riley Sheahan and defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who may be re-signed or left to the open market.

Still, Francis should have plenty of remaining cap space for significant player adds.

And that process begins with the NHL “buyout” period starting Friday and running through July 12. Teams looking to jettison players taking up undue cap space can buy those deals out – for two-thirds the remaining contract value if a player is 26 or older, one-third if younger – but first must put them through unconditional waivers starting as early as Thursday.

If a team claims those players, they assume the full remaining contract amount. Clearly, teams best positioned to do so would be those such as the Kraken with ample cap room.

But teams typically would also rather get something for those players than lose them for nothing on waivers or face a buyout penalty. The reduced buyout amount – minus any signing bonuses – still counts against the cap but is lessened by being spread over double the remaining contract length.

That’s why GMs leaguewide will be talking trades in coming days, with the Kraken’s draft picks potentially being dangled to pry away useful players other teams can no longer afford.

Also, July 11 is the deadline for teams to tender “qualifying offers” to their restricted free agents – players beyond their three-year entry-level contracts who’ve yet to acquire unrestricted free agency. At that point, such players can accept or start shopping around for better deals during the free-agency period that commences July 13.

If a new club does tender an “offer sheet,” the restricted free agent’s current team must either match it or lose the player.

Clubs that may not want to keep their restricted free agents due to cap-space concerns could also look to swing a deal with the Kraken for draft picks or cheaper players. The Minnesota Wild, facing a cap crunch, on Thursday traded breakout forward Kevin Fiala, 25, to the Los Angeles Kings – who promptly signed the restricted free agent to a seven-year extension – for a first-round pick and the rights to prospect defenseman Brock Faber.

The July 13 free agency launch is typically highlighted by splashes on unrestricted free agents, and the biggest deals often get done on that opening day. Last year, the Kraken used the opening day to sign goalie Philipp Grubauer to a six-year, $35 million contract.

This year’s opening could also be the day the Kraken reveal whether they plan a slow, steady march toward championship contention – say three to five years from now – or a quicker path.

There is goal-scoring available if the Kraken are willing to open their vault. The biggest names include Johnny Gaudreau, 28, of the Calgary Flames, a 100-point-notching left wing who fills a position of need for the Kraken given uncertainty over the health of top liner Jaden Schwartz.

Another high-scoring left wing is Filip Forsberg, 27, of the Nashville Predators, who popped 42 goals last season. Stanley Cup-winning playoff star Nazem Kadri, 31, of the Avalanche is the most-coveted center on the market and the Kraken could definitely use a top-line guy at that position while Matty Beniers adjusts to the NHL level.

The Kraken could also go the defensive route, with puck-moving Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg, 29, and his right-handed shot filling a couple of valuable team needs.

Those free agents have upcoming birthdays before next season and will have added another year to their listed ages once the Kraken take the ice. Given most are approaching age 30 or beyond, signing a bigger name could indicate the Kraken feel closer to contention than last season’s record indicates.

Francis and coach Dave Hakstol suggested at season’s end they felt the Kraken already had a “core” that could win consistently.

“We saw a stretch of 20 to 25 games at the end of the year where team play was there and was there on a very consistent basis – which is where you have to start,” Hakstol said.

Added Francis: “We feel we’ve got those key pieces, and now it’s a matter of kind of tweaking it a bit and adding those pieces around it.”

While Francis could seek another goalie to wait out Chris Driedger’s recovery from knee surgery and take heat off Grubauer – the upcoming addition of a new goaltending coach might aid that decision – scoring and defensive mobility remain the chief offseason concerns. Improving those areas would help the team’s 5-on-5 play while boosting power play and penalty kill units among the NHL’s worst.

Also, Francis faces the challenge of keeping the Kraken relevant within a broader Seattle sports scene that largely tuned out the new team once it fell from contention early.

Any upcoming moves – whether big splashes or under-the-radar deals – will help determine whether the team stays relevant this time.

“We think we’re there,” Francis said. “Hopefully, we can add the right pieces over the summer that give us a little more of an edge and continue to improve next year.”