Kraken general manager Ron Francis told fans at a club event Sunday that he feels the team’s goal-scoring should be improved and will help it “compete better” this coming season.
His words in a “State of the Franchise” gathering with the team’s Depths club members and various media in attendance at the Kraken Community Iceplex marked the first comments by Francis since training camp opened last week. Responding to a question by a fan in the crowd of about 200 on the eve of the team’s preseason opener, he noted some pundits and analytical projection systems expected a Kraken playoff contender last season based largely on what was expected to be a standout goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger.
“We weren’t sure that was going to happen,” Francis said of finishing in a 90-to-100-point range typical of playoff teams. “We were hoping that if things went well, we would have a good season. But we knew there’d be some growing pains. We think we’ve done some things this summer to give us a chance. We certainly think we can compete better this year.
“For us, it’s making sure we get better each and every year. Our players don’t want to lose hockey games. They want to win. They want to get to the playoffs. They want to compete for a Stanley Cup. As an organization, we want to do that.”
They’ll need to do it without backup goalie Driedger, who Francis estimates won’t return until February as he recovers from an offseason knee injury. Francis dropped that injury update, another one about junior-level prospect Ryan Winterton being out until December following shoulder surgery and a smaller news item about a team mascot being unveiled in coming weeks.
But primarily, he touted several additions this summer as reasons for optimism as the Kraken play host to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night and the Calgary Flames on Tuesday in preseason action at Climate Pledge Arena. Among improvements Francis hopes to see include a power-play unit bolstered by newly imported forwards Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand and offensive-inclined defenseman Justin Schultz.
All three had their talents on display during a power-play drill at Sunday morning’s practice, paired on what could be a top unit for Monday’s game with centers Alexander Wennberg and Matty Beniers. Burakovsky capped one particularly entertaining power play session Sunday by firing home a goalmouth pass from Wennberg.
“I think it’s great,” Wennberg, who played in Columbus with Bjorkstrand and on the Swedish national team with Burakovsky at the 2014 world juniors and the 2016 world championships, said of the additions. “I mean, preseason’s obviously the time to try all of this stuff. So, with the new guys, it’s building chemistry and all that. You take advantage of the time we have. Right now, we’ve only been practicing a few days, but I feel like in the end it’s going to help us out with our chemistry.”
Francis seemed to indicate veteran Schultz would get extensive looks on the top power play line, a domain many assumed would go to incumbent young Kraken defenseman Vince Dunn. Schultz was mostly blocked by others from top unit power play time in Pittsburgh and Washington before signing with the Kraken as a free agent in July.
“This is a guy that could really help run your power play,” Francis said. “He moves the puck extremely well, sees the ice well. So, again, it’s kind of a quiet signing but something we think fills a void and should be a pretty good addition to our lineup.”
An anemic power play was part of the overall lack of scoring that doomed the Kraken early despite a strong work ethic. Francis alluded to it Sunday, saying the skill and speed additions should help the team offensively.
“There were a lot of nights last year where we outshot teams 35-16 and we lost the hockey game,” he said. “I’m hoping this year we can score those goals early, get that confidence and that will help boost us certainly offensively and help us have a lot more wins than we had last season.”
Francis said he’s also hoping the offensive boost can ease pressure in the Kraken’s defensive zone.
“I’m not saying these guys are all going to be in our top-nine (forwards), but if you add Bjorkstrand and Burakovsky, Beniers, (Shane) Wright and a healthy (Jaden) Schwartz, those are five guys that could potentially be in our top nine that weren’t in our lineup last year,” Francis said. “So, we think that with the addition of that skill we’ll be able to possess the puck more. If you possess the puck more, it’s hard for other teams to score.”
Francis added that preserving salary cap space remains a priority not only for the future but this season should the team remain in playoff contention. He noted the Kraken acquired Bjorkstrand from Columbus for the paltry sum of a third- and fourth-round draft pick simply by having the room to take on his salary and estimated they currently have $1.86 million in remaining space against a cap of $82.5 million.
But Francis added the space can grow by another $3.5 million if goalie Driedger is placed on long term injured reserve – an option if the team wants to add a pricier skilled player.
“So, we are looking at that,” Francis said. “And if something becomes available, we’re certainly not afraid to act on it.”
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