SEATTLE – We’re too deep into this Kraken season for a real “first half” report card, so let’s dub this an unofficial stretch run preview. And if the final 32 games are anything like the first 50, that stretch run might crash into a brick wall. The Kraken, at 21-19-10, must improve on eight games under “true” .500.
This was a critical third season, with the Kraken needing to build off playoff momentum to bolster stagnant local television numbers and encourage pricey season-ticket renewals this spring. That sense of urgency hasn’t always seemed aligned between players, coaches, front office and ownership.
Sure, injuries to Andre Burakovsky, Jaden Schwartz and Brandon Tanev didn’t help. Nor smaller ones to Matty Beniers, Vince Dunn and Jordan Eberle.
But the Kraken prioritized working in young prospects – who’ve had minimal impact – by jettisoning the best scoring fourth line in hockey without sufficiently replacing it. The Kraken also talked throughout training camp about starting strong, then opened by losing seven of nine. They later lost eight straight but rallied with a franchise-record nine straight wins despite injuries. Once healthy, they hit the All-Star break playing a tired-looking 2-1-1 against four teams they could have run the table on.
They’re fortunate to be only two points out of a wild-card spot. But that remains tenuous, based mainly on 10 “loser” points from overtime and shootout defeats plus extraordinary goaltending by Joey Daccord.
They’ve struggled to score, going from the NHL’s fourth-best goals per game average last season at 3.52 to its sixth worst at 2.78. They’ve scored two goals or fewer – usually a guaranteed loss – 23 times in 50 games. They had only 26 such games the entirety of last season.
It’s been different defensively, thanks largely to Daccord.
In starting 20 of 22 games since Philipp Grubauer suffered his latest lower-body injury, Daccord went 12-5-3 with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
The Daccord factor could be enormous if the Kraken can score even a tad more. They’ve managed more than three goals in a game only 16 times after doing it 25 times the first 50 games last season and 41 times overall.
But the thing is, they’ve also won every one of those 16 games. To repeat: The Kraken don’t lose when scoring a fourth goal.
So, all hope is far from vanquished. Wins and losses could exponentially flip based on one more nightly converted shot. But it needs to happen right away.
Overall team grade: C
Kraken All-Star Oliver Bjorkstrand could top 60 points, Jared McCann has 20 goals again, Eeli Tolvanen has surpassed last season’s production pace and Jaden Schwartz has 10 goals despite missing six weeks. Everybody else could turn it up a notch. The team jettisoned Daniel Sprong, Morgan Geekie and Ryan Donato and didn’t adequately replace their production.
The offensive planning was built largely around Burakovsky, who’s been injured multiple times and has just one goal and six points in 19 games. Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers has just six goals. Jordan Eberle entered January with just four goals but has caught fire lately.
On the plus side, Tomas Tatar has five goals and five assists in 19 games since arriving via trade. And rookie Tye Kartye has at times outplayed free-agent signee Kailer Yamamoto – who often seems miscast in a fourth-line role. Alex Wennberg has upped his scoring production, but his contract is expiring. You’d have to think the Kraken want AHL center prospect Shane Wright promoted by the March 8 trade deadline.
Overall forwards grade: D
The Kraken are allowing the 10th fewest goals per game at 2.86, up from 15th fewest last season at 3.07 and it’s gotten better with Daccord as No. 1 goalie.
But they’ve fallen to 16th in shots allowed when last season they yielded the second fewest. This unit, while solid, remains a bit too reliant on Daccord and vulnerable off the transition.
Vince Dunn has replicated his offensive production. Justin Schultz hasn’t had as big an impact as last season and has ceded playing time to Ryker Evans with inevitable growing pains there.
Schultz could be traded based on his expiring contract, though there’s only AHL defender Cale Fleury behind him for depth. Will Borgen is maturing steadily. Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson won’t win many sprints, but are rarely injured, block lots of shots and provide muscle in front of the net.
There’s been expected drop-off from Carson Soucy to Brian Dumoulin, though the latter appears to be getting more comfortable.
Overall defensive grade: B
Daccord was fantastic the last two months, allowing two goals or fewer in 16 of 20 starts. He’d be a Vezina Trophy candidate if not for the six weeks of season prior when he and Grubauer weren’t doing enough to win games. They weren’t terrible, but some nights Grubauer gave up tough ones early or Daccord a flurry late.
That’s mostly gone away. It’s curious the Kraken would take Grubauer off the injured list, then not play him at all the four games pre-break. It leads one to wonder whether he’s still dealing with a lingering health issue.
Overall goaltending grade: B+
The power play was the drag on last season’s otherwise stellar offense and has improved to 21.7% efficiency from 19.8% – or to 15th best from 21st – despite team scoring declines overall. And that’s with injuries to Burakovsky and Schwartz and slumps by Beniers and – until recently – Eberle. They’ve moved the puck around better, even while working in rookie Evans.
The penalty kill has marginally improved to 78.7% success from 76.7%. Or, to 19th best from 21st. That was while missing Brandon Tanev the opening month-plus. But they lose too many faceoffs and miss easy clearances at times.
Overall special teams grade: C+
Coaching through injuries isn’t fun, but Dave Hakstol preached about getting off to a strong start. The opposite happened and that was before the biggest of injuries struck. The team improving the latter stages of a tough 10-game opening gauntlet of opponents suggests they didn’t begin in a high enough gear.
They also backslid in losing six of eight before the break. This club still takes its foot off the gas too early, or else can’t find the pedal to start. The overall sense of urgency must improve, to where the team is in playoff mode out of the break. That’s on the coaches to generate.
Overall coaches grade: C+
Kudos on retaining Daccord and adding Tatar. But GM Ron Francis, heading into a critical third year for the organization, could have better offset the expected loss of goals from clearing out his unusually productive fourth line. That’s an analytics task this front office usually excels at. Banking on a Burakovsky comeback and Beniers not repeating last season’s second-half slowdown hasn’t worked. Though the situation remains salvageable, it will require delicate trade deadline navigation.
While negotiating the upcoming Beniers contract, Francis should insist he work with team fitness consultant Gary Roberts on adding muscle.
Overall front office grade: C