Time to get Kraken: Seattle opens first NHL training camp

SEATTLE (AP) — It didn’t take long for Mark Giordano to get years of seeing red out of his system. The former longtime Calgary Flames defenseman didn’t even flinch Thursday while pulling on the jersey of a different team for the first time in his career.

Give an assist to his wife for making sure Seattle Kraken blue has been the dominant color for him ever since Giordano was selected by the NHL’s newest franchise in the league’s expansion draft over the summer.

“My wife’s done a good job of surrounding my family with Kraken T-shirts and now we can get some jerseys that they’re for sale,” Giordano said.

Giordano and the rest of the Kraken’s roster hit the ice for the first time as a team with the start of training camp Thursday. It was the first step toward Seattle’s debut on Oct. 12 at Vegas and came exactly a month before the Kraken open their home arena against Vancouver.

While Seattle’s roster is a mix of veterans and some young talent looking for an opportunity, no one on the roster comes close to Giordano’s years on the ice.

After 15 years in Calgary — the past eight as the Flames’ captain — coming to Seattle is a fresh opportunity for the nearly 38-year-old veteran.

And nothing is more exciting than the first day of camp.

“It wasn’t light out for a little while but I wasn’t first at the rink, I can tell you that,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “Everyone was here earlier, everybody was excited to get going. Overall, it was a good first day for everybody to get under their belts.”

Giordano was in the first group to take the ice shortly after 9:30 a.m. They were greeted by applause from fans who showed up at the team’s $80 million practice facility for a glimpse of Seattle’s players.

Most of the team has been in town for a couple of weeks having informal workouts.

“All the guys were here earlier than I’ve seen groups on other teams come in,” forward Jordan Eberle said. “We were all here for two weeks in advance to camp. I think that was just everyone wanted to get here, get settled obviously being new, getting a chance to meet the guys, joke around in the locker room, start some camaraderie within the group. That bonding is huge.”

Seattle plays the first of six preseason games Sunday against the Canucks in Spokane, Washington. Because the team is entirely new both Hakstol and some of the players said they would like to keep the pairings from the first day together for a bit to see how it develops.

“We’ve only got a certain amount of time so what we would like to do is put some combinations together and see what that looks like,” Hakstol said. “In order to see that you have to give it two or three days to build together, possibly even leave it together through one exhibition game and then we have the opportunity to look at a different combination.”

One unexpected sight was forward Yanni Gourde working with the second practice group, albeit wearing a red no-contact jersey. Gourde had shoulder surgery in July shortly before the expansion draft and was expected to miss the first two months of the regular season.

While that still might be the case, general manager Ron Francis said Gourde is ahead of schedule in his recovery.

“We’re finding out he’s a tough guy to hold back,” Francis said. “He’s really worked hard.”

NOTES: Francis said Seattle’s entire roster has received its COVID-19 vaccinations. … One noticeable absence on the first day was center Colin Blackwell, who is day-to-day with a lower body injury, Hakstol said.

Calgary Flames: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Calgary Flames.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 26-27-3 (55 points); fifth place in North Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Matt Coronato No. 13 overall
• Offensive leader: Johnny Gaudreau (56 games, 19 goals, 30 assists, 49 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Blake Coleman, Erik Gudbranson, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Nikita Zadorov (trade from Blackhawks), Tyler Pitlick (trade from Kraken), Daniel Vladar (trade from Bruins).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Mark Giordano (Kraken expansion draft), Josh Leivo (Hurricanes),  Dominik Simon (Penguins),  Derek Ryan (Oilers), Buddy Robinson (Ducks).

Biggest Question Facing the Flames

• Where is this team going, exactly?

Heading into the offseason, it seemed like the Flames were at a fork in the road.

Would they trade or extend Johnny Gaudreau? What about Matthew Tkachuk? Sean Monahan has two years left on his deal, but the clock is ticking there, too. Might Brad Treliving pay a price to keep both Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev? Could the Flames make even bolder decisions, such as possibly parting ways with Treliving (who’s had plenty of kicks at the can since taking over as Flames GM during the summer of 2014)?

At that fork in the road, the Flames could have gone up (trying to swing for the fences, maybe getting Jack Eichel?) or down (blow things up, rebuild). Instead, they mostly idled in the middle of the road. While they did give Blake Coleman big term in their lone free-agent splash, this is still mostly the same team that disappointed last season. Even their biggest loss (Giordano to the Kraken) feels like a nondecision, one carrying the stench of passivity.

Heading into 2021-22, it feels like the Flames are stuck in neutral, and not exactly driving a cheap vehicle. They’re betting that things just sort of … fall into place.

What’s the salary cap situation?

For a team that’s only won one playoff series (two if you count the Qualifying Round series vs. the Jets during the 2020 bubble playoffs), the Flames aren’t exactly cheap.

By Cap Friendly’s measures, the Flames are more or less scraping against the salary cap ceiling. If the Flames get back into the Jack Eichel sweepstakes, quite a bit of money would need to go back to Buffalo.

Looking past the 2021-22 season returns the Flames to that fork in the road. Gaudreau ($6.75 million cap hit) and Tkachuk ($7M) are both entering contract years. Even if they underwhelm this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both get significant raises. A potential raise could also be the downside if Andrew Mangiapane ($2.425M) breaks out in a mainstream way after being an analytics darling for years.

It all sets up a series of uneasy scenarios. If Tkachuk and Gaudreau flop, it might cost Treliving his job. If they both rebound in huge ways, they’d be tough to fit under the salary cap in 2022-23 and beyond.

All of that said, credit Treliving for this: if someone else is taking over as GM, they can make their own mark on the Flames. Even with dicey contracts on the books (most obviously, Milan Lucic), the Flames are projected to have more than $30M in cap space with 12 roster spots covered next summer.

Breakout Candidate

Juuso Valimaki

The Flames’ defense seemed suspect even with an aging-yet-still-effective Giordano. With Giordano cracklin’ with the Kraken, Calgary might just sink.

Valimaki could be called upon to pick up a lot of slack. So far, he’s played 73 games at the NHL level. Both in 2018-19 (24 games played) and 2020-21 (49 GP), Valimaki averaged about 15 and a half minutes per night. The 22-year-old showed flashes of that first-round potential (16th overall in 2017), but the Flames might ask for him to accelerate his growth in an uncomfortable way in 2021-22.

Otherwise, the Flames’ defense might need to lean heavily on some clunky depth defensemen, such as Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, and Michael Stone. Not ideal.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

While the Flames inspire a lot of pessimism, it’s easy to lose track of the good. This was a team that finished in the top-10 in both simple (percentage of shots) and more advanced (expected goals, high-danger chances) metrics, at least at even-strength. You could apply some of the same “if only their power play was decent, and they got a few saves” logic to the Flames, as the Canadiens received before. Yes, contract years can be a big distraction. Pressure creates diamonds, too, though, eh? Maybe we’ll see the best of Tkachuk and Gaudreau, and things just come together for the Flames in 2021-22? Hey, there’s even some room for optimism about the latest Sutter sequel.

(Also, the Pacific Division is weak enough that Calgary could make the playoffs even if a lot goes wrong.)

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

Look at the Flames’ recent history of head coaches, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this franchise is out of ideas. So many retreads; so many Sutters. Darryl’s in-season record (15-15-0) captures the stuck-in-the-middle spirit of the Flames, an expectation that carries over to 2021-22. Truly, staying stuck in the middle might be the worst-case scenario for the 2021-22 Flames. Missing the playoffs (again) would already be bad. But what if the Flames are good enough to maintain false hope, thus leading them to keep Gaudreau and others, instead of trading them at the deadline? There’s the very real, stomach-turning possibility that the Flames miss the playoffs, Gaudreau leaves for nothing in free agency, and people lose their jobs.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.