Many of us know the awkward feeling of trying to explain to someone that the team whose logo is on your hat doesn’t actually have any players yet. “Well, when will they have players?” July 21st is the first answer that comes to mind. That’s the date of the Kraken’s expansion draft, the wonderful day which we all have circled in big red ink on our calendars. A hockey holiday unlike any other, it’s like Christmas, your birthday, and the Stanley Cup Final all rolled into one. July 21st will be a momentous day and provide the Kraken with the core of their team for years to come. But there’s a good chance the Kraken will have already signed some players by then.
While established NHL players won’t be available to the Kraken until the expansion draft, there will be a pool of junior hockey players who have impressed NHL scouts enough to earn a contract offer. Seattle’s amateur scouting staff is already watching the junior hockey ranks for standout players. If they identify a prospect they like, they may offer him a contract well before summer.
That’s exactly what the most recent expansion franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, did on March 6th, 2017. Over three months before their expansion draft and seven months before their first game, the Golden Knights signed Reid Duke to a 3-year entry-level contract, making him the first player in franchise history. The 21-year-old Canadian forward was the leading scorer for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, attracting the interest of several NHL teams.
Duke was selected in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Minnesota Wild in the 6th round. Despite a slight uptick in Duke’s scoring numbers, the Wild opted not to sign Duke to an entry-level contract over the next two years. As a result, their exclusive rights to Duke expired and he became an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team. A connection to the Vegas front office ultimately helped make the match. Duke’s head coach in his first two years with the Wheat Kings, Kelly McCrimmon, had since moved on to become the Golden Knights’ assistant general manager. Familiar with Duke’s skillset, the Golden Knights’ front office felt that he would be a good piece of Vegas’ initial prospect pool.
For nearly two months, Duke remained the only player on the Golden Knights, which led to a great opportunity for the social media team:
Jokes aside, Duke’s signing served as an important milestone in Golden Knights history. Fans finally had a player who they could associate with their new team. Duke’s contributions to Las Vegas hockey history wouldn’t just be off the ice either. This January, playing for the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate team, he scored the first goal in Henderson Silver Knights history. While, like many junior free agent signings, Duke has long odds to be an NHL regular, he has made a permanent mark for the Golden Knights franchise.
March 6th is less than two weeks away. Does that mean a similar signing for the Kraken is imminent? Not exactly. There are still two factors keeping the Kraken from signing free agents. The first is the fact that Seattle’s final payment to the league hasn’t been made yet. It’s not until the final payment clears that the Kraken officially join the league as the 32nd franchise. Once it does, they’re free to make transactions and roster moves like any other team in the league. Vegas’ final payment cleared March 1st, 2017, allowing the Golden Knights to sign Duke five days later. Kraken CEO Tod Lieweke has said that the Kraken are on track to make their payments on the same timeline as the Golden Knights, so we can assume that news of the final payment clearing will come sooner rather than later.
The second factor is this year’s COVID-19 impacted schedule. Because of the pandemic, every league’s timeline has been pushed back. Reid Duke was nearing the end of his junior season with the Wheat Kings when he signed with Vegas. This year, Canadian major junior teams like the Wheat Kings will likely see their seasons continue for another three months. That means Seattle probably won’t be in position to sign a player until May at the earliest.
While NHL teams signing junior free agents is a routine procedure, this year one signing will mean a lot more than that. There’s a special significance to being the first player in a team’s history. You’re the answer to a trivia question, a social media trend, and for a brief period of time, the face of a franchise. Who will be that special player for the Seattle Kraken? We may not have to wait until summer to find out.