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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kraken need more than ‘loser’ points from here to make playoffs

The Seattle Kraken’s Adam Larsson (6) plays the puck ahead of the St. Louis Blues’ Brandon Saad (20) during the first period at Climate Pledge Arena on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – No major professional sports league rewards losing quite like the NHL, and few teams are capitalizing the way the Kraken have.

That’s either good news or highly concerning for Kraken fans as the team pauses for the All-Star break. By design, the single “loser” point awarded for overtime and shootout losses, which the Kraken have gorged on like empty calories, keeps NHL standings artificially close. So close, in fact, that roughly three-quarters of teams can claim to be in playoff races when many have little to no chance barring a serious uptick in play.

So, what kind of contenders are the Kraken as their schedule pauses 50 games in with a 21-19-10 record? Well, they need to get far better at winning and not just grabbing points for losses.

Coach Dave Hakstol earlier this week succinctly summed up his team’s needs after a 2-0-1 homestand.

“These five points out of six (during the homestand), that’s pretty good – as long as we get the next two.”

That didn’t happen. They lost 2-0 on the road Tuesday against a bad San Jose team, a missed opportunity that could come back to haunt them. The Kraken, as Hakstol alluded, must start coming away with two points and not just the single loser point, or zero points. They need to show they can win more than they lose because that’s what playoff teams do. Otherwise, without fixing that dynamic, they won’t be a playoff team.

Only one NHL team – the New York Islanders – has more loser points than the Kraken’s 10. And the Isles, who have 12, just fired coach Lane Lambert. As for the Kraken’s 10 such points, tied with Los Angeles and Columbus for second most, they came courtesy of six overtime defeats and four shootout losses.

And without those points, their season might be done.

So, the good news is the season isn’t done. They remain two points behind St. Louis and Los Angeles in the wild-card race. But worth noting, the Blues hold a game in hand and the Kings three.

Also, Nashville remains two points ahead of the Kraken, so even if the Kings maintain their shocking collapse – they’ve lost 14 of their last 16 – the Predators will be there to fill the void.

In other words, as they say in baseball: It’s getting late early. They don’t say that as much in hockey because of the aforementioned artificial races engineered by salary-cap parity and loser points. Trust me, the NHL’s public-relations staff brags about standings closeness within daily media releases. It’s purposely maintained to sell hope – and tickets – within as many fanbases as possible.

But there’s a difference between things appearing close and actually being that way.

A year ago, we had a column about this phenomenon of loser points keeping playoff races artificially close. The Kraken held what appeared to be a slim five-point lead over the closest challengers outside of a playoff position, the Calgary Flames, but most prognostication websites still gave Hakstol’s group a 90% chance of making the postseason.

One reason was the Kraken’s 29-16-5 record meant they were a true eight games above .500. The Flames, at 24-17-10, were a true three games below .500 and only hanging around because of a league-high amount of loser points. There was little indication based on actual play that the Flames could achieve a high enough winning percentage from there to catch the Kraken.

That winning percentage needed to be quite high to not only close the five-point gap but also offset any loser points the Kraken would undoubtedly pick up the rest of the way.

Given that, all the Kraken really needed was to keep winning more games than they lost, of which they’d proven capable. Despite some stretch-run struggles, they did just that by finishing 17-12-3 – winning a pair more than they lost and garnering a few loser points along the way to cruise into the No. 7 seed.

And that’s the thing with loser points. As much as struggling teams rely on them to stay close, those they are trying to catch will inevitably gain some as well and make that gap very tough to narrow.

The Kraken, while barely playing above “true” .500 down the stretch, nonetheless expanded their lead from five points to eight on the Flames by season’s end. Calgary’s league-high 17 loser points still weren’t enough to get their 38-27-17 team to the postseason.

It nearly was, as the Winnipeg Jets almost had a historic collapse, going from a Western Conference-leading 31-16-1 record on Feb. 1 to a 15-17-2 finish that barely earned the No. 8 seed.

This tells us two things: One, that the Jets losing four more games than they won over the final two-plus months nearly cost them a playoff spot – especially without earning enough loser points to offset Calgary’s 17.

And two, that the Flames losing six more games than they won overall did cost them a playoff spot. Losing teams generally don’t belong in the postseason no matter how many points they’re gifted in defeat.

As for the Kraken, unlike the Jets, they have the whole loser-point thing down. No worries there about letting undeserving teams catch them.

What is troubling is that much like last season’s Flames, it’s now the Kraken casting themselves as this season’s undeserving squad.

They’ve lost eight more games than they’ve won – the polar opposite of their true eight games above .500 a year ago – and are only contending because they have twice as many loser points as they had 50 games into last season.

Digging deeper, the Kraken’s 17 regulation wins are two fewer than any playoff-positioned team and fifth worst in a conference that includes notable losers San Jose, Chicago and Anaheim. No wonder the MoneyPuck website has their playoff odds at just 41.1% despite the mere two points separating them from a wild-card position.

Given the loser-point quandary, that gap won’t have to grow much to become too big. If the Kraken want to go to the playoffs, they’ll need to start showing they can win more than they lose.

They’ve shown they can win nine straight. Unfortunately, they’ve lost six of eight since.

And if the Kraken can’t gain positive separation in that gap between their own wins and losses, the teams they’re chasing will inevitably separate from them in a negative fashion.