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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: With novelty worn off, Kraken must improve to regain fans’ attention

Alex Wennberg, center, of the Seattle Kraken and San Jose Shark Logan Couture take the opening faceoff in Seattle last April.  (Getty Images)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – For the Seattle Kraken, their inaugural season was all about the wonderment of having an actual NHL team in town, playing in a brand-spanking-new arena.

It was a vibe. It was a novelty. It was a honeymoon.

On Thursday, the Kraken officially kicked off their second training camp, and that new-team smell has largely worn off. The process started last year, when reality hit quickly that they would not replicate the debut magic of the Vegas Golden Knights (who set an unfair expectation for all future expansion teams by going to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season).

The Kraken started off poorly and were eliminated from playoff contention early. They had trouble scoring (tied for fourth lowest in the NHL in goals) and stopping other teams from scoring (goalie Philipp Grubauer went from finalist for the Vezina Trophy to lowest save percentage, at .889, in his 10 NHL seasons). The resulting 27-49-6 record that yielded just 60 points was third worst in the 32-team league.

That’s hardly the foundation to sustain the rabid fan base that flooded Climate Pledge Arena, at least at the outset. Empty seats grew more plentiful near the end as resale ticket prices and television ratings plummeted.

Kraken coach Dave Hakstol spoke Thursday of the “voracious” appetite the Seattle community displayed toward Kraken hockey, but the team needs to provide more of a feast in the upcoming season to make sure those fans don’t take their hunger elsewhere. Particularly with those initial three-year season-ticket commitments coming up for renewal after two more seasons.

The mission for the Kraken is clear: They need to make substantial improvement this season to keep their newly minted fans, as well as the hardcore puckheads, engaged in more than just the trappings of a franchise launch.

That doesn’t mean a run at the Stanley Cup, because it’s not realistic to jump from league doormat – the Kraken finished a whopping 39 points out of the playoffs – to championship contender. But it’s not unrealistic to expect the Kraken to be far more competitive than last year and see if that parlays itself into a playoff position.

Asked what he feels is a realistic expectation for 2022, Hakstol replied, “Let’s make progress. I sat here last year and said, ‘We want to be competitive every night.’ And if you think we’re going to go into day one and not have our sights set on competing for a playoff spot, you’d be sorely wrong.”

The Kraken have made numerous additions that they think will allow them to do just that. When you consider they had 16 one-goal losses last year and 10 more two-goal defeats by virtue of empty-net goals, they might not have to do as much tweaking as you’d think.

The clear goal of GM Ron Francis was to improve the Kraken’s goal scoring. Francis made a huge trade for former Columbus winger Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is coming off a career high with 28 goals and 57 points. He signed free-agent winger Andre Burakovsky, formerly of Colorado, to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, and also inked offense-minded defenseman Justin Schultz. The Kraken hope that the return of Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz from significant injury will be the equivalent of adding two new potent players.

Finally, the Kraken are hoping to get a Julio Rodriguez-like jolt from one or both of their exciting young centermen, Matty Beniers and Shane Wright. Beniers showed enough in his late-season showcase (three goals, six assists in 10 games) to convince the Kraken he’s ready to be turned loose. Hakstol on Thursday said of Beniers, “Matty looks to me like he’s ready to jump into his spot. … There’s always challenges that come with being a young guy in this league, especially up the middle. But he’s ready to meet those challenges.”

Wright, at 18, is even younger and less experienced than the 19-year-old Beniers. But the Kraken couldn’t believe their good fortune when Wright, projected by many to be the No. 1 overall draft pick last year, fell to them at No. 4. There was much thought in the hockey world that Wright was NHL-ready coming out of the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, and the Kraken will likely give him every opportunity to prove it.

The Kraken will also need vastly improved goalie play from Grubauer, particularly with backup Chris Driedger expected to be out until January after tearing his ACL representing Canada at the World Championships. The Kraken signed free agent Martin Jones to spot Grubauer, but a more significant pickup could be new goalie coach Steve Briere, signed away from the Maple Leafs to replace the fired Andrew Allen. Hakstol has said that one of the best ways to take pressure off the goalies is by improving their own goal-scoring.

Last year, the Kraken inspired excitement merely by their presence. This year, it will have to be by their performance.