Camp countdown: 5 breakthrough candidates to watch

Czech Republic v Canada - Gold Medal Game - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship

HALIFAX, CANADA - JANUARY 05: Shane Wright #15 of Team Canada skates with the IIHF World Championship Cup after Team Canada defeated Team Czech Republic 3-2 in overtime at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship at Scotiabank Centre on January 5, 2023 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

The start of September means the wait is almost over. 

The 2023-24 season across the National Hockey League is still a matter of several weeks away, but ask many players: they’re already wrapping up their summer like a student preparing for final exams. The period of relaxation in June has now given way to the gym grind of August and early September, where training camp no longer is the playground to get in shape. 

The mandate these days is clear in the modern game: show up ready to go. 

The Seattle Kraken, who should be opening training camp around the middle of September and start preseason play on Sept. 25 with a split squad matchup against the Calgary Flames, will face a different dynamic of their roster compared to 12 months ago. Back then, several jobs were unquestionably up for audition. The team came off an expansion season that was full of aesthetic magic at the surface, but clogged with losses underneath that put contention out of the question, realistically, by Christmas. 

Many of those jobs are now spoken for, from new 40-goal man Jared McCann to Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers at “1C” to Vince Dunn, new top pair blueline mainstay, to emerging goaltending lead man Philipp Grubauer. Thank a historic turnaround season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs for that – which revealed identity, where the Kraken have become a deep and relentless offensive engine when at their peak, blitzing their way to knock out Colorado in the first round and reach game 7 of the second round. 

However, as a roster along a general baseline is fluid, the Kraken have said their goodbyes to departing free agents Ryan Donato, Daniel Sprong, Morgan Geekie and Carson Soucy, leaving a few roles open. While it’s expected incoming signees Kailer Yamamoto, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Brian Dumoulin will contribute, a natural progression of development inside the AHL with the affiliate Coachella Valley Firebirds still opens the door for prospects looking to take the next step. 

Here they are, among those likely to draw the most attention:

1.     Shane Wright: until his time has come in the NHL, he will attract notice that’s as intense as desert heat on a sidewalk in August. There’s still leeway for the 19-year old center’s development – the Kraken have much of their lineup entrenched after last season’s playoff run, and he isn’t even technically eligible yet to play in the American Hockey League unless a negotiation is successfully worked through with the Canadian Hockey League. Consensus after last year’s NHL Draft though suggested Wright could make the team out of the gate – which he did – and make a year-long impact. 

Yet, he found himself unable to unseat Matty Beniers, Alex Wennberg, or Yanni Gourde for a significant role, and his playing time and numbers took a jump once he departed the World Juniors, then OHL, and threw in a conditioning stint in the AHL: all to the tune of 19 goals in 28 games at both the AHL and major junior levels, and a gold medal as captain for Canada. Wright’s numbers took a step back in the AHL postseason, where he was eligible to play, but found a consistent spot in the lineup that got to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Final. 

“A guy like Shane – probably at the start of the playoffs maybe wasn’t at his best,” said Kraken general manager Ron Francis. “But it was interesting to watch, as the playoffs went along, he got better in each series. I think his best series was the Final series. That should give him a lot of confidence as he moves forward into camp.” 

Wright is armed with a major league shot, boxy frame, and intangibles. He’s a gold card carrying member of the “Watching Patrice Bergeron” club. This summer, hinted as a defining one by Francis at the end of last season, will yet determine Wright’s immediate next steps with bringing other parts of his game up to speed. It’s very possible he continues his development back in the OHL or in the minor leagues this year. But the NHL is not out of the question. The progression optics this month will certainly be fascinating. 

2.     Joey Daccord: Could it be his time to take the next step? After starting out deep in the Ottawa system, the 27-year old netminder spent much of the last two seasons as a Kraken prospect in the AHL. Last season was maybe a glimpse of potential – he was serviceable in separate NHL call-ups, with a 2-1-1 record in five games. But he was lights out in the AHL – and the Firebirds rode his play to the threshold of a championship, where in a record setting playoff run, he was busy racking up three shutouts and a .926 save percentage in 26 postseason games. 

Martin Jones, backing up Philipp Grubauer for much of the year and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has moved onto Toronto after one impactful but brief one-year stay in Seattle. There’s a spot now open behind Grubauer in camp, where Daccord will draw attention in a potential battle with once-injured, now-healthy Chris Driedger, coming off recovery from an ACL injury and spending all of last season’s playing time in the AHL. 

3.     Ryker Evans: If last season was an indication of the future, the door to the NHL might be loosening up, enough for Evans to bust it down soon. As the Kraken carefully managed his first year of pro development exclusively at the AHL level, the second round pick of 2021 continually demonstrated he was fit to not just pass – but ace every test along the way. The 21-year old finished second among Coachella Valley’s defensemen with 44 points in 71 games, led the league’s rookies in assists, and was explosive in the postseason – only Kole Lind and Max McCormick were better than his 26 points in 26 postseason games. An anchor on their power play, he also earned a spot on the team’s top defensive pairing. 

Evans has four left shot defensemen ahead of him with NHL experience heading into training camp: Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Brian Dumoulin, and Jaycob Megna. He may need a prolific set of weeks immediately ahead to jump the queue. But his AHL All-Rookie campaign has turned enough heads to suggest he is ripe enough to crack an NHL lineup, and potentially another solid camp sets him up as one of the first in line waiting for a plane ticket to Seattle in the event of injury-related call-ups. 

4.     Kole Lind: Career paths come in all shapes and sizes. And timelines. Perhaps the story of Lind, if he makes it to the NHL on a full time scale, suggests another late-bloomer story is in the making. While he’s fully suppressed on the depth chart behind an established Kraken forward corps, they were as healthy as it gets last season, and health is never a concept that comes with predictability. Should a key winger land on the shelf, Lind could be at the front of the line for a call-up after leading the AHL Firebirds with 30 goals, and Calder Cup MVP candidate numbers by leading the team in playoff scoring with 31 points in 26 games. 

Lind plays with an edge, hand-in-hand with his playmaking touch. He has 30 games of NHL experience, has trended north in goal-scoring at the AHL level through five seasons, but the staying power in “The Show” has been minimal. For the 24-year old forward who was just extended on another one-year, two-way deal, perhaps another alluring camp is all he needs to stay on the radar for his big break. 

Dallas Stars v Seattle Kraken - Game Six

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Vince Dunn #29 and Tye Kartye #52 of the Seattle Kraken celebrate a goal by Kartye during the second period against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Climate Pledge Arena on May 13, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

5.     Tye Kartye: McCann was lost to injury in round one. In game five at Colorado, the Kraken had no choice but to call up and play Tye Kartye. When the second round went deep against Dallas, the Kraken had no choice but to keep trotting out Tye Kartye. He scored in his NHL debut – in a playoff game, mind you – and was never taken out of the lineup after that.

“This kid worked hard,” said Francis. 

“The credit goes to him. He worked really hard last summer. He got to Coachella and was constantly asking coaches on the ice, ‘what can I do to make myself better’? He continued to work, and work, and work. All of a sudden in January, things changed for him. He was one of the best players in the league from January until the end of the year.” 

He earned three goals and five points in ten playoff games against Colorado and Dallas, and if he wasn’t on the scoresheet, he virtually hit anything that moved. Armed with a blistering shot and a fearless physical presence, his power forward brand delivered AHL Rookie of the Year honors last season with a 28 goal campaign, before getting his shot with the Kraken and then going back to the AHL, riding another playoff wave for a month to game seven of the Calder Cup Final. There’s no greater proving ground than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unless Kartye experiences an unexpected regression in camp, he’s virtually established strong candidacy for graduation to an opening night roster spot.  

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