The Seattle Kraken AHL affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, won the Western Conference and made it within one game of winning the Calder Cup in their inaugural season.
“We probably don’t talk enough about the American Hockey League team,” Seattle Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke told the assembled media during the May 31, 2023, press conference announcing the team’s agreement to extend the contract of general manager Ron Francis. Leiweke was not boasting, though. To the contrary, he mentioned the Firebirds in order to credit Francis for building a contender in the desert. “Others certainly helped [build the Firebirds], but Ron had the vision,” Leiweke remarked.
No doubt the Kraken front office deserves credit, but Leiweke and his co-owners are among the “others” that should be mentioned. The Kraken ownership group—which also owns and operates the Coachella Valley Firebirds—has invested significant resources in assembling a deep and talented group at the AHL level. Looking at the available contract data for the 2023-24 season, few teams project to spend more on their AHL players.
The Kraken aren’t spending this money for appearances; they don’t talk about it, and nobody is covering it. Instead, it seems Seattle has quietly spent more than most of their competitors for one reason only—to win.
To be certain, a competitive AHL roster is crucial to developing the fanbase in Coachella Valley. But the team has shown a willingness to spend beyond what is necessary just to compete and get fans in the door. The commitment to building a contender in Seattle and Palm Desert runs deep.
There are few limits on roster spending at the AHL level
AHL teams are made up of players on NHL contracts (paid by the NHL team) and AHL contracts (paid by the AHL team)—though, in the case of the Firebirds, the money is coming from the same place. Players signing NHL contracts are entitled to a minimum salary in the NHL based on their draft year, ranging from $62,500 if drafted in 2005 to $82,500 if drafted in 2023. Terms of AHL contracts are not made publicly available, but there is a flat minimum salary of $52,725 for the 2023-24 season.
Beyond that, there is no salary cap applicable to the AHL level, and there are no maximum salaries limiting AHL contracts (or the NHL contracts assigned there). There are not even roster size limits on AHL rosters until the playoffs. In fact, the only real AHL roster construction limitation is the so-called “veteran rule,” which requires that each AHL team dress a minimum of 12 players with fewer than 260 games of NHL experience.
NHL-level teams are limited by an upper restriction on the total number of active player contracts they can maintain at any given time (50) and an upper limit on spending ($83.5 million in 2023-24). NHL contracts can be either (a) “one-way” contracts, meaning the contract provides for a fixed, guaranteed salary regardless of whether the player is in the NHL or AHL, or (b) “two-way” contracts, meaning the contract has one salary for time spent at the NHL level and another salary for time spent at the AHL level.
Players assigned to the AHL do not count against the limit unless the contracts call for an AHL salary above a specified threshold ($1,150,000 in 2023-24). This is what it means to “bury” an NHL contract in the minor leagues. (For more on “buried” contracts, check out CapFriendly‘s explainer here.)
Taking these rules together, there is very little in the AHL or NHL collective bargaining agreements limiting teams from acquiring as much talent as they can afford—particularly when those contracts carry AHL salaries below the threshold to be “buried” in the AHL without consequence on the NHL salary cap.
The Kraken have built NHL depth through the AHL roster
When it comes to investing in the roster, few teams outpace the Seattle Kraken. In the inaugural season, Seattle’s ownership group declared its willingness to spend to the cap on the NHL team. In year two, Seattle’s owners spent every dime of the $82.5 million NHL roster upper limit. In fact, the Kraken effectively spent beyond the cap and will carry a bonus overage on Matty Beniers’s contract onto their 2023-24 books.
But nowhere is Seattle’s commitment to spending more evident than in its efforts to build depth at the AHL level. In the short term, while the team is still building its pipeline of drafted prospects, the Kraken have invested heavily in veteran AHL talent with the ability to play top-of-the-lineup roles. This has been critical to Coachella Valley’s on-ice success and developing the fanbase there. Even more importantly, it is smart insurance for the NHL team.
For example, defenseman Gustav Olofsson not only played top-four minutes for the Firebirds last season, he was first in line for a call up on the left side of the NHL blue line, until his injury prompted Seattle to trade for Jaycob Megna. Even with Megna on board, and prospect Ryker Evans developing, Seattle valued Olofsson’s role in the organization enough to re-sign him to a two-year, two-way contract this offseason that guarantees him at least $800,000 over those two years, even if he spends all of that time in Palm Desert. That is a hefty commitment to protect the NHL team. It’s not the type of move every team would make.
The Joey Daccord signing is perhaps the clearest example of Seattle’s willingness to spend money on depth. With Philipp Grubauer ensconced as the starter in net, either Daccord, and his $1.2 million average annual value (AAV) contract, or Chris Driedger, and his $3.5 million AAV contract, project to be blocking AHL pucks this season. But that extra goaltender is just one injury away from being a critical piece for the NHL club.
The Kraken are near the top of the league in spending on projected AHL players
Quantifying where Seattle ranks among its NHL competitors in AHL spending for the 2023-24 season is complicated by the fact that AHL contract terms are not disclosed. It’s also difficult to project exact payrolls because AHL free agency—and, to a lesser extent, NHL free agency—remains ongoing. The Firebirds announced their first AHL contract signing for the 2023-24 season just yesterday.
To get a decent picture of where Seattle stacks up, I started by projecting NHL contracts likely to be assigned to the AHL level. I compiled all active NHL contracts in CapFriendly’s contract database and then backed out the contracts of all players contained in that site’s projected NHL depth charts. I then made minor adjustments to these depth charts to reflect likely roster composition (i.e, one or two “extra” forwards, one “extra” defenseman, and only two total goalies). I moved Daccord to the AHL level for the Kraken because CapFriendly had three goalies listed at the NHL level, which is highly unlikely assuming all three are healthy, and replaced him with Kole Lind.
This procedure left a list of players on NHL contracts projected to play outside the NHL. I used this list to look at which team had the most contracts with above-minimum salary guarantees for players playing the AHL. This includes players on “one-way” contracts—on which players earn at least the NHL minimum salary even if they are in the AHL—and those on “two-way” contracts whose contracts call for an AHL salary above the applicable minimum.
As anticipated, Seattle ranks highly. The Kraken are one of only eight NHL clubs with 10 or more players projected to play in the AHL on NHL contracts calling for greater than minimum AHL salaries. For Seattle, this includes three players on “one-way” contracts—Daccord, Cale Fleury, and Andrew Poturalski. The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the way with 13 players projected to play in the AHL on NHL contracts calling for salaries above the AHL minimum salary, including a staggering six one-way contracts for players currently projected to be in the AHL.
Digging a bit deeper, I then built an approximated AHL payroll associated with each NHL team. Of course, many players on NHL entry-level contracts will be loaned back to CHL clubs or clubs in other professional leagues. But those entry-level contracts carry minimum minor-league salaries, and if those players are not in the AHL, they will likely be replaced on the AHL team with roughly comparable minimum-NHL-contract or AHL-contract salaries.
To the extent the team did not have enough associated contracts to fill an AHL roster of approximately 23 players, I used a standard contract value ($80,000) between the minimum salary on AHL contracts ($52,725) and the minimum salary of the most recent draftees on NHL deals ($82,500) as “stand-in” values for the estimated cost of further additions. To the extent the team had more than 23 non-NHL contracts, I subtracted out the value of the most recent entry-level contracts associated with the team, projecting that those players would end up back in the CHL or elsewhere.
Acknowledging that this procedure yields nothing better than a rough estimate, this projection puts Seattle’s overall AHL payroll as the third-highest in the league. Individual players can skew these results. If, for example, Chris Driedger were sent through waivers instead of Joey Daccord in the upcoming season, the Firebirds’ total roster cost would be higher. On the other hand, if Daccord or Driedger were claimed off waivers, the roster cost would be lower. There is a lot of uncertainty in projecting an AHL payroll in July.
One thing is certain, though; Seattle has committed to spending on talent that will play mostly in Coachella Valley. The Seattle front office deserves credit for identifying a group of players that can compete with the very best in the AHL. But ownership deserves credit, too, for spending beyond what many other teams are willing to do. We probably don’t talk about that enough.