Without the pieces in place, there is no deep playoff run. Without a head coach, there is no guiding hand to put those pieces in the right place.
Without the right general manager, there is no head coach to make all of that work, and get the right pieces in the first place.
General manager Ron Francis is behind what’s gone right in those areas for the Seattle Kraken, rewarded after a historic playoff berth and run to within nine wins of the Stanley Cup with a multi-year extension on Wednesday, keeping the architect of the Kraken roster and foundation in place through at least the next four seasons.
There is more work to be done, something that Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke told 93.3 KJR-FM realistically may not give Francis a break until August, with the NHL Draft, free agency period (that may require a little more meticulous attention this year), and head coach Dave Hakstol’s final year of his three-year contract all coming up.
However, building blocks already laid in place have broken down so many proverbial doors and shattered so many expectations.
THE BIG MOVES UNDER GM RON FRANCIS:
1) Hiring of head coach Dave Hakstol: There is no playoff run without a qualified head coach. Full stop. Francis got his guy, and his faith has been rewarded. At the controls for a Kraken run that turned second year expansion benchmarks upside down was Hakstol, originally hired two years ago in a move that not many publicly expected, endured a turbulent first season on ice, then pushed all the right buttons that justified the qualities that Francis sought at the time of the hire.
Hakstol, a decorated bench boss at the NCAA level with North Dakota but who previously never got past the first round as a head coach in Philadelphia, also experienced a breakthrough season personally and isn’t just a coach in Seattle anymore - he’s the caretaker of an identity that’s fully developed into a playoff team for just the second season – speed, pace, skating ability, and forechecking the opposition to smithereens.
Hakstol is now a finalist for the league’s Jack Adams Award.
2) Drafting (expansion) and extending Jared McCann: He’s arguably the face of the Kraken offense, though it’s more than a one-line wrecking crew that led the NHL in five-on-five goals this year. McCann became the first 40-goal scorer in Kraken history, fulfilling promise after surface and underlying metrics the year before illustrated the Kraken got a great one, exposed by Toronto in the expansion draft. McCann led the Kraken with 25 goals during the expansion year, generated shot quality north of 50 percent at five-on-five play, and had a Corsi rating better than the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Marchessault, and (soon-to-be teammate) Andre Burakovsky.
McCann responded to Burakovsky’s arrival, as part of the free agent upgrade brigade, and a five-year contract extension with a monster 40-goal campaign. Francis has seen a player who just didn’t want to be a part of the Kraken, but a long term building block.
3) Drafting Matty Beniers: If McCann is currently a face of the Kraken offense, Beniers is the face of the Kraken future – and among the “who’s who” of youngsters in the NHL. He’s the oddsmakers favorite for the Calder Trophy, anchors a top-six line with two veterans (and an impressive Tye Kartye during the playoffs) on the wings, and busted the 20-goal plateau in his first full rookie season - even after needing some persuasion from Francis to forego his junior season at Michigan to turn pro.
Beniers hasn’t disappointed since that decision, picked second overall by Francis and crew, whose collective conviction won out over mock draft predictions that had anyone from Beniers, to Luke Hughes, to Dylan Guenther, to even Wiliam Eklund going second overall.
4) Trading for Oliver Bjorkstrand: A little under one year ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets made a surprising splash in the free agent market by luring Johnny Gaudreau away from Calgary and potential suitors such as Philadelphia and New Jersey. Patrik Laine was in need of a raise. He secured the bag. In total, the Blue Jackets had a ton of hot stove fun by dishing out over $100 million in total, across seven seasons, to keep Laine and reel in Gaudreau.
They had a problem after that: fun with money only goes so far and the salary cap, set last season at $82.5 million, told them somebody had to go. And the move would be painful. Bjorkstrand led the Blue Jackets with 28 goals that previous season, but was on the books for four more years at $5.4 million annually.
Francis jumped like a savage at the opportunity to upgrade the Kraken roster with offensive depth, landing the talented sniper out of Denmark for just two draft picks – second and third rounders this July (the Kraken still pick four times in this draft, which will be remarkably deep).
Though he endured a slow start to what he and Hakstol hinted at was dumb puck luck, Bjorkstrand caught fire in the second half of the season and returned to his usual self with a 20-goal campaign. He saved the best for when the stakes were the highest, scoring both goals in the legendary game seven, 2-1 win for the Kraken in Denver to bounce the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, and competed on arguably the best line of their postseason, with Eeli Tolvanen and Yanni Gourde.
5) Signing of Andre Burakovsky: Though he missed the final two months of the regular season and the entire postseason run with a torn groin suffered in early February, Burakovsky’s addition paved the way for the upgrade in the Kraken offense that became a trademark for their turnaround. He won two Stanley Cups in Washington and Colorado, became a free agent after his second title with the Avalanche, and likely would have a hoard of teams knocking at his door.
Francis banged the loudest, and it didn’t take long to get him, inking the ninth-year Swedish forward to a lucrative five-year, $27.5 million deal just hours after the free agent market opened for business. He got into the fast lane quickly as part of the Kraken offense, scoring 13 goals with 43 points in just 49 games, prematurely ending his season as the team’s leading scorer out of the All-Star break.
Burakovsky is projected to return to next season at full health after undergoing surgery in April, has purchased a house in Bellevue, and like McCann, has found a new, long-term offensive home. He’ll be a critical piece of the puzzle with the third season expected to open with higher expectations.
Goaltending through free agency: It took awhile for this to pan out, but the Kraken would be nowhere close to where they are today, without what Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones did this past season. Both were free agent pick-ups: Jones for a short-term solution to address a torn ACL situation for Chris Driedger, and Grubauer as a linchpin piece in the team's first official summer, when Grubauer was lured away from the Avalanche with a six-year, $35.4 million deal.
Question marks surrounded Grubauer in season one, and injury woes early in season two. Jones' arrival was perfect timing, playing his best in the first half of the season before Grubauer returned. Once that happened, Grubauer elevated his game down the stretch, and arguably was the best player in a Kraken jersey during the first round upset of the Avalanche - 33 saves in game seven at Colorado, in what seemed to be a goaltender in a #31 jersey who was from another planet. Combining totals from that win and in a "winner-take-all" matchup in Dallas, Grubauer carries a combined save percentage of .951 in game seven situations with the Kraken. That's money goaltending, and perhaps a glimpse of what's to come - in a free agency pick-up that now seems worth every penny.
Noteworthy: expansion draft picks of Vince Dunn, Adam Larsson, Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde and Brandon Tanev, Jaden Schwartz signing, waiver wire claim of Eeli Tolvanen, hiring of goaltending coach Steve Briere, trade for Daniel Sprong, coaching staff and team acquisitions for the AHL Coachella Valley Firebirds (reaching the Conference Final as an expansion team).