With the picturesque Seattle skyline as a backdrop, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman walked across the stage in the city’s Gas Works Park and received a familiar greeting from the league’s newest fan base Wednesday night.
Boos. A lot of them.
“The booing is OK,” Bettman responded. “It just means you’re hockey-ready.”
It’s likely that the expansion franchise’s diehard fans were well-prepared for the unveiling of the first 30 players in Kraken history. One by one, Seattle’s selections were leaked on social media Wednesday morning, spoiling an event that was supposed to be packed with suspense and showcase the city.
There was the news that Seattle opted to not take a risk on Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, the development that the Kraken chose to avoid the high-priced contracts for forwards Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators.
While the crew at ESPN acted like no one was aware of the results, there were no surprises as the picks were announced by Seattle General Manager Ron Francis, nine-time NBA all-star and hall of famer Lenny Wilkens and construction workers at the Kraken’s Climate Pledge Arena, among others.
Although Sabres fans knew hours before the event began that Seattle selected 24-year-old right-shot defenseman Will Borgen, the official announcement by Wilkens was viewed by many as another disappointing moment amid Buffalo’s 10-year playoff drought.
Borgen has recorded zero points in 14 career NHL games and, although a promising young defenseman who could have brought a rugged style to Buffalo's blue line, he was never given a real opportunity to carve out a full-time role with the Sabres.
“I really like this pick. He’s only played 14 NHL games, but Borgen is a really gifted athlete and a strong skater,” said Dominic Moore, an ESPN analyst and former NHL forward. “One of those guys that’s a late bloomer. He really developed quickly during his time at St. Cloud State and we’ll see what he can become.”
This outcome seemed inevitable when the Sabres chose to use one of their protection spots on defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who is on the trade block again after eight seasons in Buffalo. Ristolainen, 26, was drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in 2013 and has shouldered the workload of a No. 1 defenseman for most of his 542 games. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2021-22 season.
Ristolainen expressed frustration with the direction of the Sabres when the franchise's playoff drought reached 10 seasons in May, and he told Adams during exit interviews that he wouldn't be opposed to a change of scenery. TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported Tuesday that Montreal and Winnipeg are among several teams to express interest in Ristolainen.
The Sabres could have made a side deal with the Kraken to influence Francis to select defenseman Colin Miller or winger Zemgus Girgensons, but Francis reportedly had a high asking price for any such trade.
The Kraken also chose to not select Jeff Skinner, a $9-million-per-year winger who has scored only 21 goals across the past two seasons. Skinner has six years remaining on the $72 million contract he signed with Buffalo in June 2019.
Borgen’s departure, and Ristolainen’s potential exit, creates a significant need on defense for Buffalo. As of now, Miller and Henri Jokiharju are the only right-shot defensemen projected to be on Buffalo’s roster this season. The Sabres also have prospect Oskari Laaksonen in Rochester.
Given the state of the organization, the Sabres will have trouble luring impact free agents to Buffalo, but they could address the issue in a trade involving Ristolainen, Jack Eichel or Sam Reinhart, all of whom are expected to be dealt in the coming weeks.
The Sabres’ depth at left-shot defense is stronger, led by Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson. Sources told The News on Wednesday that the Sabres and Dahlin’s representatives have begun talks on a contract for the restricted free agent. General Manager Kevyn Adams’ staff will have to do the same with Jokiharju, who is also a restricted free agent.
It's also likely the Sabres will use the first overall pick in the draft on Friday to select University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power, a 6-foot-6 prospect with a left shot and elite skating ability. Jacob Bryson and unsigned 2019 first-round draft choice Ryan Johnson also play the left side.
The league-wide trade and signing freeze ends Thursday at 1 p.m., ET. Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen cannot be traded until the deadline passes. The Sabres’ preference to acquire an additional top 10 pick in this entry draft increases the likelihood that a deal could be completed Thursday or before the first round on Friday at 8 p.m.
Kevyn Adams, associate general manager Jason Karmanos and director of amateur scouting Jerry Forton are scheduled to speak to the media inside KeyBank Center on Thursday morning.
Borgen is a restricted free agent and won't receive much of a raise from his $864,166 cap hit last season. After all, Borgen was limited to only 10 games because of a broken forearm suffered while blocking a shot in New Jersey on Feb. 20. It was Borgen's fourth game of the season after he began the year on the taxi squad, and he played through the injury that night, finishing with 19:14 of ice time.
Borgen returned to the lineup in late April and appeared in six more games before his season ended. He was a potential member of the Sabres' young core. Instead, Borgen is joining a Kraken roster that, as of now, includes a very deep depth chart on defense, although Seattle is short on options with a right shot.
The Kraken also selected defensemen Haydn Fleury, Jeremy Lauzon, Mark Giordano, Gavin Bayreuther, Jamie Oleksiak (free-agent signing), Adam Larsson (free-agent signing), Cale Fleury, Carson Soucy, Kurtis MacDermid, Dennis Cholowski and Vince Dunn.
Seattle’s selections at forward were John Quenneville, Tyler Pitlick, Morgan Geekie, Joonas Donskoi, Calle Jarnkrok, Nathan Bastian, Jordan Eberle, Colin Blackwell, Brandon Tanev, Alexander True, Carsen Twarynski, Yanni Gourde, Jared McCann, Kole Lind and Mason Appleton. The Kraken’s goalies are Chris Driedger (free-agent signing), Vitek Vanecek and Joey Daccord.
Since Borgen's selection in the fourth round in 2015, he has played in 140 games with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. He totaled four goals and 25 points in 140 games with the Amerks. Borgen also spent three years at St. Cloud State.