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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chandler Stephenson’s deal about broader Kraken goals rather than dollar value

The Seattle Kraken signed 30-year-old Chandler Stephenson from the Vegas Golden Knights to a seven-year, $94-million contract.  (Getty Images)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

Amid fan and media reactions to the Seattle Kraken’s stunning $94 million free -agency outlay last week was understandable consternation about the pickup of Vegas Golden Knights center Chandler Stephenson.

You won’t often see a 30-year-old NHL forward awarded a maximum seven-year deal for an annual salary-cap hit of $6.25 million. Forwards rely on speed and finesse more than brute strength, and that can better help top defensemen such as the Kraken’s other big free-agent pickup, Brandon Montour, 30, through the aging process.

Already, there have been concerns expressed about Stephenson slowing down and whether he’ll be as proficient without Vegas winger Mark Stone alongside him –and whether the deal can withstand more than a few seasons before becoming a payroll anchor.

Kraken general manager Ron Francis addressed the length issue following both deals.

“At this time of the year, you’re not getting them if you don’t go seven years a lot of the time,” Francis said.

True enough. If the Kraken want top free agents, they’ll need to pay the market rate. And when it comes to centers, with Steven Stamkos and Elias Lindholm snatched up early, there weren’t better options than Stephenson.

There’s a reason the Kraken paid for the free agents they did and the positions they play.

That’s why the key to understanding the Stephenson contract is from the macro perspective of overall Kraken franchise goals rather than picking apart future dollar value. For the Kraken, having gone all-in on a massive summer of organizational change, the Stephenson deal is more about the next few seasons than four or five years from now.

I’ve long suggested professional sports teams are not competing in any financial Olympics. There are no medals for general managers squeezing every penny’s worth of value out of every contract.

The goal in pro sports is to win and make money. Period. How teams do that varies.

In a salary-capped NHL, it of course becomes more important to garner value out of money spent. But the pro sports goals of winning and making money don’t vanish. And despite what some may try to claim, maximizing payroll efficiency doesn’t automatically beget winning. More often than not, some risk is still required.

The Kraken’s biggest offseason move, I’d argue, wasn’t signing Stephenson or Montour. It wasn’t replacing head coach Dave Hakstol with Dan Bylsma. Or the coming contract extension for restricted free agent Matty Beniers.

No, the biggest was swapping out ROOT Sports for the Kraken’s own in-house broadcasts on “free” TV airwaves and streamed by Amazon Prime. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed any Seattle team move as universally welcomed by local fans. Usually, they squabble about something. Not this.

But the Kraken need a product to put on those free airwaves. It does no good if they ice a team that has folks switching the channel.

The whole point of the TV move was to instantly get more people watching. Three seasons in, the franchise wasn’t quite where it needed to be within this competitive sports market.

And you only get one shot at a first impression.

The Kraken and Francis know they must do better at competing in the immediate while awaiting future player prospects rising toward the NHL level. They couldn’t go into next season without giving fans serious hope of returning to the playoffs. Hence, the Kraken’s all-encompassing summer of change designed to alter their on-ice dynamic and off-ice perception.

But in last week’s signings, Francis also took care not to block top prospects projected to arrive the next two to three years.

So, he spent on Stephenson and Montour at positions of relative organizational weakness – center and right-handed defensemen. And both signings should have a ripple effect beyond the two players.

Montour gives the Kraken three defensive pairings balanced in left-right handedness and with above average offensive-inclined defenders on each – Montour, Vince Dunn and likely Ryker Evans.

Stephenson’s impact is equally important, though not as obvious. While not really a true No. 1 center, he can be a top liner here and afford Beniers breathing room to grow without constantly matching up against an opponent’s best players.

Stephenson also allows Jared McCann to return to left wing, where he’s scored most of his franchise-leading 95 goals.

And for a team previously with McCann, Beniers, Yanni Gourde and Shane Wright comprising its center depth chart, Stephenson provides more top-end experience to compete right now.

You weren’t getting that by signing an up-and-coming 25-year-old who’s never worked a top NHL line.

Stephenson increases the likelihood of Beniers rebounding from a disappointing sophomore campaign. The Kraken need to hope Andre Burakovsky similarly rebounds and McCann pops a few more.

With added back-end production from Montour as well, the Kraken’s offensive woes suddenly don’t seem as daunting. And that’s without trading away top players.

Had Francis instead signed elite wingers for several years, there would have been a logjam. Burakovsky and McCann have three more contract seasons to go, while Jordan Eberle, Jaden Schwartz, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Eeli Tolvanen have two.

On the farm, you’ve got top-scoring wing prospects Jagger Firkus, Carson Rehkopf and David Goyette about to turn pro. Eduard Sale is a No. 20 overall pick from a year ago. And perhaps better than all is 6-foot-4, 207-pound Finnish winger Jani Nyman now in the AHL.

So, upgrading at center made more sense. The Kraken just drafted Spokane Chiefs centerman Berkly Catton at No. 8 overall and hope he becomes a true top-line center. But that’s a minimum four years away.

For now, the Kraken have Stephenson as an immediate positional upgrade eventually – one hopes – surpassed by a fully developed Beniers and Wright. And even if Stephenson’s contract doesn’t age well, it won’t be calamitous if the NHL salary cap keeps rising as expected.

Philipp Grubauer’s contract for similar annual money hasn’t aged particularly well under the current cap. But that hasn’t prevented these or prior Kraken upgrades.

No matter what you think Stephenson’s deal will look like in four years, the team should be better the next few. At least Kraken fans have hope that wasn’t there two weeks ago.

The reality of this new NHL market forced the Kraken to stop playing things completely safe. They haven’t shown the reckless abandon of the Golden Knights. But by picking up a top Vegas free agent in Stephenson, they’ve shown urgency to accomplish more than simply waiting around years for hyped prospects to arrive in bigger numbers.

After all, they will want those prospects greeted by a home arena filled with many more fans than empty seats.