Three potential breakout players for the Seattle Kraken to target

Chris Johnston joined Sportsnet Central to discuss whether or not Carey Price will be selected by the Kraken, and other players that were left unprotected by their club teams that could be of interest to Seattle.

The protected lists have been revealed and so too has a shift in strategy by most teams when it comes to making players available for Wednesday’s expansion draft.

Unlike the Vegas expansion draft of 2017, several teams have opted to protect their value contracts, young players on team-friendly deals, as opposed to established veterans on sizeable contracts. Big-name players like Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Mark Giordano are up for grabs as teams hope to avoid losing players with the potential to become the next Jonathan Marchessault or William Karlsson whom Vegas took from Florida and Columbus, respectively.

That’s not to say there aren’t some potential under the radar, diamonds in the rough out there for Seattle. With that in mind, here are three players who have the potential to breakout, should the Kraken choose them in the expansion draft.

JAKE BEAN

Bean was drafted 13th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016. In his first full NHL season in 2021, Bean recorded one goal, 11 assists in 42 games. He was heavily sheltered on the Hurricanes’ third defence pairing and performed well in his role. While the offensive numbers are nothing to write home about, Bean excelled in several areas that speak to his overall game.

The 23-year-old has good poise with the puck in the offensive zone and saw time on the Hurricanes’ power play. Among defencemen with 500 or more minutes at even-strength, Bean ranked 25th in offensive zone puck possession per 60 minutes. His comparables in this area were Jakob Chychrun and Darnell Nurse. With only 44 NHL games under his belt, Bean will only grow more comfortable and confident with the puck in the attacking end. A good example of his ability to control the puck and create scoring chances can be seen in this primary assist against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Bean also makes a good first pass from the defensive zone, especially up the ice to his forwards in the neutral zone. Bean ranked sixth in stretch pass completions, averaging 8.6 per 60 minutes.

Defensively, albeit in a limited and sheltered sample size, Bean was among the most effective defencemen in the league at denying zone entries. Bean ranked second to Brayden McNabb in zone entry denial rate, successfully preventing clean entries on 55 per cent of all attempts against him last season. If opponents try to get him turned around by dumping the puck into the offensive zone, Bean will likely beat you to it and start a breakout up the ice.

Having the ability to recover dump-ins and then successfully exit the defensive zone enables your team to spend less time defending and more time on the attack. Bean ranked fourth among all qualified defencemen in how often he recovered a dump-in then proceeded to successfully break the puck out of his end, doing so 78.8 per cent of the time. Cale Makar ranked first in this metric.

Again, much of Bean’s ice-time came against bottom-six competition, but his underlying numbers in several key performance areas jump off the page. If Bean can perform at a similar level in a top-4 role, this should be a no-brainer pick for the Kraken.

Bean has the raw tools to become an impact, top-four defenceman. What he needs now is an opportunity to show his stuff in more minutes against tougher competition. That likely isn’t coming anytime soon on a stacked Hurricanes blue line, but if afforded the opportunity in Seattle Bean could end up being one of its best picks in the expansion draft.

MICHAEL BUNTING

A fourth round draft pick by the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, Bunting is an unrestricted free agent, however the Kraken have a 72-hour exclusive window to sign free agents. Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games with the Yotes last season. Did Bunting outperform his expected goals total (a reflection of goal probability based on shot quality and quantity)? Of course he did. Any player who scores at that rate will outperform expectation, but that doesn’t mean Bunting can’t or won’t be an effective NHL forward.

Bunting showed a willingness and ability to get to the front of the net and produce shots on goal, especially from the inner slot, a diamond-shaped area in front of the goal crease where roughly half of all goals are scored, year-over-year. Players who produce shots from here at a high rate typically score a lot of goals. Auston Matthews led the NHL in inner slot shots per 60 at even-strength this season and he scored more goals than anybody. Bunting ranked 25th, averaging 3.1 inner slot shots per 60. His comparables in this area are William Nylander and Brady Tkachuk.

Bunting likely won’t score at a half-a-goal-per-game pace in his NHL career, but if he can generate high-danger shots at the rate he did this season, he will be a goal scorer worth having on your roster. Bunting averaged just under one point per game over his past two seasons with Tucson in the American Hockey League so there is evidence to suggest he can be a productive offensive player.

Bunting also proved to be an effective forechecker for the Coyotes last season. Among forwards with at least 200 minutes played at even strength, Bunting ranked 60th in dump-in recoveries, averaging 5.6. Only five players averaged more puck battle wins in the offensive zone than Bunting who averaged 8.3. His comparables here: Ross Colton and Jordan Staal.

Listed at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, Bunting is smaller than average but he is a smart player who can put himself in a good position with and away from the puck. If Bunting can be a disruptive player away from the puck while scoring 12-18 goals per season, he will be a valuable player on his next contract.

CONNOR CLIFTON

A right-shot defenceman with two years left on his contract at $1 million per season. That sentence alone would make the ears of most general managers perk up. Connor Clifton of the Boston Bruins is much more than that and would be a great value add should the Kraken choose to select him. Clifton put up solid numbers on the Bruins’ third pair last season. Capable of playing both the left and right side, Clifton plays much bigger than his 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame. Clifton is not only physical but he uses his body effectively to force changes of possession.

Last season, Clifton ranked 16th in puck battle wins per 60 among defencemen with at least 500 minutes played at even-strength. His comparables were Erik Cernak and Andy Greene. Clifton is also a strong skater who recovered loose pucks at a high rate. Per 60 minutes, Clifton recovered 70.6 loose pucks which also ranked 16th with Sam Girard and Mattias Ekholm as his comparables. Getting to available pucks and pushing opponents off the puck contributed to Clifton posting terrific on-ice defensive numbers.

With Clifton on the ice at even strength, the Bruins allowed 4.6 shots against per 60 from the most high-danger scoring area on the ice, the inner slot. That was the 10th-lowest rate of any qualified defenceman. Clifton ranked 12th in expected goals against while-on-ice at 2.00 per 60. Opposing offences struggled to generate quality chances against the Bruins with Clifton on the ice.

What makes this even more impressive is that Clifton put these numbers up while playing with a rotating cast of defence partners. Clifton played at least 100 even-strength minutes with four partners (Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, Brandon Carlo, and Mike Reilly). He did not play 200 minutes with any one partner. Finding chemistry with several defence partners didn’t seem to be an issue for Clifton, which would be important for any player drafted to an expansion team.

While teammates Zboril and Lauzon are also available to the Kraken, Clifton would be our pick of the bunch if Seattle does opt to select a defenceman from the Bruins. As a depth defenceman who can play above his role if required, Clifton’s versatility would be a welcome addition to a team starting from scratch.

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