The Seattle Kraken announced Wednesday afternoon they had recalled two young forwards from the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the AHL: Shane Wright, Seattle’s 2022 first-round pick, and Ryan Winterton, Seattle’s 2021 third-round pick. Wright logged only eight NHL games last season, while Winterton, if he were to play Thursday in Colorado, would be making his NHL debut.
These moves were a surprise until (later on Wednesday) Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times reported that Kraken forward Jordan Eberle had suffered a deep laceration in his leg at Wednesday’s practice. Jaden Schwartz stepped on a puck and lost his balance, leading to the injury. Baker also reported that a second unnamed Kraken forward was dealing with an injury coming out of Tuesday’s game against the Coyotes that could affect that player’s ability to play Thursday night in Colorado.
As recounted by Baker, Kraken general manager Ron Francis expressed optimism that the team may have “dodged a bullet” with Eberle’s injury, but Seattle was awaiting official results from an MRI before reaching any conclusions on the duration of Eberle’s potential absence from the roster.
As for Thursday’s game, it sounds like one, or perhaps both, of Wright and Winterton should be out there. What else do we know? How do all the roster pieces fit together? Why were Wright and Winterton selected for recall? How long will they stay with the Kraken? Let’s dive into those questions and more.
Fitting the roster pieces together
It may come as a surprise that Seattle was able to add two new forwards to the roster, but the Kraken have been playing shorthanded and with open roster spots for a while.
The team began the season with only 22 roster players, one below the maximum roster size of 23. While teams often carry two extra forwards beyond the 12 forwards who may suit up in a game, Seattle started with only one–Tye Kartye.
In the time since the puck dropped on the season in Las Vegas, the Kraken have lost forwards Brandon Tanev and Andre Burakosvsky to injuries and placed both on injured reserve, opening their roster spots for a replacement. Before Wednesday, the team had recalled only Devin Shore from Coachella Valley as an injury replacement. This left Seattle with just 12 healthy forwards and two open roster spots.
When Eberle was hurt Wednesday–and another player’s injury apparently lingered–the team did not have any fill-ins ready on the roster. This prompted Seattle to recall players from Coachella Valley.
Since the team is not cap-constrained at the moment, Seattle had the option to recall any AHL forward on an NHL contract. Why did the team choose Wright and Winteron over more experienced forwards like John Hayden or Max McCormick who have logged games with Seattle in the past? Let’s take a look.
Wright and Winterton surging in Coachella Valley
The simplest answer is that both Wright, 19, and Winterton, 20, have been playing well and producing offense. Wright has tallied three goals and two assists in his last four AHL games, including an overtime game-winning goal on Oct. 29.
Wright’s total is second-most on the team in that four-game stretch, tied with Winterton’s identical total of three goals and two assists. Winterton is a rangy, skilled player, who has seen his development frustrated by injuries and a lost season when the OHL shut down due to the pandemic. When he’s been able to take the ice, he has been productive.
Wright could slide into Eberle’s role on the power play. He has been manning the wing on the Firebirds’ second power-play unit, looking for his perimeter shot. But Wright also has a feel for playing in the slot (where he often finds himself at five-on-five) and could move directly into Eberle’s bumper role.
For his part, Winterton brings special teams value too, having earned a role on the top penalty-killing unit in Coachella Valley. The Eberle injury aside, the penalty kill is likely a greater area of organizational need given the team’s struggles in this area recently.
Finally, it is worth noting that Wright and Winterton have spent significant ice time together in recent weeks and have found success playing off each other. This tandem dates back to Kraken training camp when they were often grouped with Tye Kartye. Could we see that line together again Thursday? It may be too inexperienced a grouping for the coaching staff’s liking, but we’ll learn more at Thursday’s morning skate.
What about the other options in Coachella Valley? Hayden is more of a bottom-of-the-lineup grinder at the NHL level. I suspect the team wanted for more offense if it is going to be without Eberle (and Burakovsky) for a stretch of time.
McCormick is the only other Firebird who was producing offense at a higher rate than Wright and Winterton over the last couple weeks, but I suspect the Kraken would prefer to leave their AHL captain in place unless it’s a long-term or near-permanent change.
Wright and Winterton’s recall may be brief if one or both of the new injuries reported Wednesday aren’t long term and Brandon Tanev returns to the lineup in the coming weeks. Still, the recall is just reward and encouragement for two young players who have played well in the AHL.
Upward roster pressure has been missing this year
Seattle’s success last season was frequently ascribed to its depth of NHL-caliber forwards. The team deployed players like Ryan Donato, Morgan Geekie, or Daniel Sprong on the fourth line, and at times scratched one or more of those players due to their depth, but those players had the talent to score in bunches if matched against opposing depth units.
The internal competition for playing time was a big part of the story too. The players knew that if they let their pace or details slip even temporarily, they might be out of the lineup in favor of another player looking to take their spot.
Much of Seattle’s vaunted depth left in free agency, but still the team was poised to have strong internal competition for playing time on the eve of the opener in Vegas. One of Karyte or Kailer Yamamoto had to sit that night. Both are skilled players–not your average “healthy scratch”-type.
Unfortunately for the team, injuries struck immediately. Since that opening game the team has not had the same upward lineup pressure. If a player was struggling, there was no viable threat to substitute him out of the lineup.
The addition of Wright and Winterton may provide a jolt to the remaining roster players. Wright was a top draft pick, and Winterton comes with strong pedigree as well. If Wright and/or Winterton crack the lineup Thursday night, and play well, others struggling through laggard starts to the year will find themselves with new external motivation to pick up their play.
The return of ‘contract corner’
Digging deep into the minutiae of this transaction, Baker noted that Wright’s recall was on an “emergency” basis. What are the implications for Wright and the team of this designation? It turns out, not much. But I’ll explain how it works under the Collective Bargaining Agreement for those who are curious.
A team can recall a player on an “emergency” basis if it can show that it has fewer than 12 healthy forwards, six healthy defensemen, or two healthy goaltenders.
The immediate benefits to a team of an “emergency” recall as opposed to a “standard” recall relate to the salary cap–if the team is at the limit, there is some relief–and eligibility for waivers if a player is not waivers exempt–a player’s NHL time on an emergency recall, if fewer than 10 games or 30 days on the roster, will not count toward the requirement for the player to be placed on waivers again under a “standard” recall scenario.
Neither “benefit” of the emergency designation applies here. Seattle is not at the upper salary limit and Wright will remain waivers exempt no matter how many games he plays with Seattle this season. So, there is no obvious rationale (in any remotely probable scenario) for using the emergency designation on Wright, aside from the fact that the team can use the designation and there is no downside to it.