The expansion Seattle Kraken had to live with comparisons to the Vegas Golden Knights throughout their just-concluded inaugural National Hockey League season.
“There was a lot of talk about that among you guys,” said Seattle coach Dave Hakstol, referring to the media. “I didn’t listen to it.”
The Knights broke into the NHL five seasons ago with a surprising first-season run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Washington Capitals in five games.
That was never going to be in the cards for the Kraken, who didn’t hit big in the expansion draft and ultimately collected amateur draft picks on the way to finishing well out of the playoffs. Lightning didn’t strike twice.
“Vegas had a different philosophy on how they were going to build their team and used the expansion draft to do it,” said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of Oak View Group (OVG), which partnered with Kraken ownership to repurpose Climate Pledge Arena in downtown Seattle. “They wanted to be immediately competitive. That was their decision. Time will tell whether that works out long-term.”
For the short term, the Knights barely missed the playoffs after making them in every one of their first four seasons.
Meanwhile, the Kraken are on the clock. They are building through youth, and the first step is this evening’s NHL lottery, when the No. 1 pick will be decided through a weighted random ping-pong ball selection. A second draw will then be held to determine who gets the No. 2 pick. The draft itself is June 7-8 in Montreal.
The Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Kraken were the worst teams in the league this season and have the best shots statistically of ending up with their own picks as the No. 1 selection.
The odds, according to the NHL, are 18.5% in favor of the Canadiens, followed by the Coyotes at 13.5% and the Kraken at 11.5%.
Shane Wright, a center from Canada, is the consensus top pick, according to NHL.com.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes have three picks in the first round, four more in the second round, and 10 overall in the draft. That’s their core philosophy as the team builds toward a move next season into a new 5,000-seat arena on the Arizona State University campus with an average ticket price of $160.
“I have a priority list that sits in my desk and my No. 1 to No. 10 says the draft, the draft, the draft,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said about making the team better than its 50-loss season. “So we’re going to focus in on that right now.”
Likewise, the 49-loss Kraken have 12 picks in this year’s draft, including their own first-round pick, four in the second and three in the fourth.
Like Armstrong, Kraken general manager Ron Francis made it a priority to trade established players with some value to stockpile draft picks.
During the next three years, the Kraken have already amassed 34 draft picks, and the Coyotes have 32.
“No one has more draft picks that they’re sitting on than the Kraken and Coyotes,” said Leiweke, whose OVG also is operating the ASU arena in Tempe, Ariz., and signed the Coyotes to a three-year lease.
The Coyotes also announced Monday they have partnered with OVG this coming season to market and sell sponsorships for NHL games in the new arena.
Now, it’s just a matter of how each of these clubs utilize those draft picks to build a competitive team. Francis, like Armstrong, can’t afford to miss.
Leiweke, whose brother, Tod, is president of Kraken, said, “Ron is going about building a foundation with great young kids. And you do that through the amateur draft. We’re very, very bullish and patient with the way Ron is building this team.”
For the Kraken, the development plan extends into OVG’s partnership agreement with owner David Bonderman, which goes far beyond the reconstruction of Climate Pledge Arena. That part of it turned the old building into a state-of-the-art facility at the cost of $1.15 billion while preserving historic portions of the original structure.
The Kraken sold out there this past season with an average 17,151 tickets per game or 100.3% of capacity, making them one of only six NHL teams to play at 100% capacity in their home buildings.
The partners have also combined to fund an American Hockey League team, plus a new 10,000-seat arena and practice facility in the Coachella Valley just east of Palm Desert, Calif. The cost is $325 million for the franchise, $285 million for new Acrisure Arena, and the practice facility at $35 million, Leiweke said.
“Best-in-class facilities,” he added.
The arena is expected to be completed in December, a month after the practice facility. Meanwhile, the fledgling AHL Firebirds will play their initial home games next season in Seattle until the new facilities are ready.
Even so, the Firebirds’ ticket sales have already reached 5,000 in Coachella Valley, and premium seats and sponsorships are sold out, Leiweke said. In addition, the new building will be a haven for music shows, much like Climate Pledge and UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. OVG partnered with the New York Islanders on that wildly successful $1.3 billion building that also opened late last year.
Thus, the Kraken’s first season in the NHL might have been underwhelming, but there’s a plan in place to succeed.
“When you make that kind of commitment, I think people begin to figure out the philosophy and the direction the Kraken and the Firebirds are going in,” Leiweke said. “We’re excited about the Kraken’s future. It’s only going to get better as these young kids join them.”