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Analysis: Three thoughts on Kraken as they head into final month of season

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 and Kate Shefte Seattle Times

With a month to go in the Seattle Kraken’s NHL season and playoffs now looking like a wild dream more than a wild-card dream, here are a few thoughts on a season that wasn’t from Kraken writers Geoff Baker and Kate Shefte.

Did losing their fourth line really turn the Kraken from a near conference finalist into a nonplayoff team? Or is something bigger at play?

Baker: They haven’t replaced Daniel Sprong, Morgan Geekie and Ryan Donato with production elsewhere – particularly from lines higher than the fourth. That said, this team is a classic case of failing to meet enhanced expectations. We’ve seen this with other Seattle teams.

Winning when fans and opponents expect it is tougher than catching folks off guard. The Kraken began terribly before kicking things into a higher gear. They’ve done best after being written off – winning nine straight and achieving a 13-game points streak right after losing eight in a row.

But then, back in it, they dropped eight of 10. Then, after going 7-2-1 and getting within playoff reach, they lost all four this homestand. Blame injuries or bad finishes, but the result is the same. The bar was raised. They haven’t cleared it.

Shefte: I’ll say this – losing their depth forwards certainly didn’t help. Just about everyone has taken a step back production-wise and the Kraken aren’t the matchup headache they were last season. The best you can say for any of their lines is that they’ve been solid, but they haven’t been dangerous for any good length of time. The steps forward they probably expected, like from Matty Beniers, largely didn’t arrive.

I had an inkling they were going to drop that overtime heartbreaker against the Vegas Golden Knights last week. Geoff’s right, they’ve played their best when their backs have been fully against the wall, not when they have some semblance of control. There was a clear path forward with two potential head-to-head wins against the struggling Golden Knights in two weeks. Not to be negative, but it was all coming together too well.

What outside perception about this team makes you want to take your laptop and heave it off the press box balcony?

Baker: That they are what’s expected of any expansion team. Again, they paid a $650 million expansion fee to not suffer like prior newbies. The NHL knows new fans need immediate reason to watch new teams.

I know the Kraken expected better because I was around them well before they officially landed their franchise. All you heard from ownership was how expansion rules would ensure immediate competitiveness. Those plans went astray the opening season. I was then told two years ago this month that Year 3 was when we’d see real playoff contention.

Well, they’re now cooked with a month to go. Making the playoffs a year ago hasn’t changed that this team has work ahead. Is it fixable? Absolutely. I wrote Saturday how things can swing big as quickly as next season. But the first step to fixing a problem is admitting one. East Coast pundits claiming it’s part of some master expansion plan obviously haven’t seen the local TV ratings, empty seats or half-price tickets online.

Loved that salary cap space the Kraken were gifted in Year 1? There was no cap to exploit in prior expansion decades.

Yes, teams weren’t letting the Kraken fleece them the same way Vegas did in the expansion draft under identical new rules. So, given three years to prepare – twice as long as Vegas – and anticipating opposing teams would be smarter, how well was Plan B executed? How well did the Kraken use their 2021 exclusive expansion rules window to negotiate with pending free agents? Where can they do better? Those are productive questions. Comparing the Kraken to typical expansion teams is living in denial.

Shefte: Thanks, Geoff, for making my stomach flip with the wording of this question. My great, irrational fear is accidentally dropping something from the press box, which is suspended over the lower levels at Climate Pledge Arena, and concussing someone.

What were we talking about? Things I’ve heard lately – Philipp Grubauer has been a total bust, and this team doesn’t care anymore. The last few outings have lacked some urgency, almost like they’re experienced professionals who have realized it’s not going to happen this year. But I’ll wager this team cares a lot. Glancing around the dressing room after a game, you’d see it, too.

Grubauer was very good down the stretch this year – between Feb. 13 and March 4, he went 5-1-0 with a .943 save percentage – just like last spring. He was also a star of the Kraken’s unlikely postseason run. How quickly we forget. He didn’t return from a long-term injury and rescue them this year, it’s true. But are we sure that’s a realistic expectation?

Are you surprised at all by the team’s handling of Shane Wright and Ryker Evans?

Baker: I understand it. I really do. There’s merit to not burning the first year of Wright’s entry level deal by limiting him to five more NHL games this season. With Evans, I suspect the Kraken kept him benched for weeks instead of returning him to full-time AHL play because Vince Dunn was recovering from a mid-January injury and they needed daily insurance. They were likely also showcasing Justin Schultz before a trade that never happened – or going primarily with Schultz to stay in contention, or both – and so Evans sat.

Still, I keep coming back to how the team prioritized getting rid of fourth -line forwards and defenseman Carson Soucy so incoming youth could transition to the NHL. That strategy led to a step back this season. It is what it is. But having made that sacrifice, I think giving Wright a 20-game NHL trial run – a full quarter season – once Alex Wennberg was traded should have superseded not burning that contract year.

That way, you hit the ground running next fall without needlessly sacrificing more.

Shefte: I’m surprised. I haven’t covered another team that sat top young prospects for weeks like this. I understood the issues in Wright’s case last season, even as the situation dragged on from October into December. There was no perfect situation there. But if you’re in playoff contention, playing well enough and don’t need him – they didn’t want to interrupt a good thing last year to work Wright into the lineup, which is understandable – conventional wisdom says you send him somewhere he can play. If Schultz wasn’t in immediate danger of being traded throughout February, I’m not sure why Evans didn’t go down and get some games in with the Firebirds.

Someone argued (sorry if it was you, Geoff) that he has nothing left to accomplish in the American Hockey League. I doubt that. Sure, he’s getting excellent coaching with the Kraken, but Coachella Valley has a Stanley Cup -winning coach and an impressive supporting staff and they’re headed for a second straight playoff berth, top two in the Western Conference again. If nothing else, it sounds better for the ol’ confidence than constantly worrying that if you have a major misstep in a Kraken game, you’re going to be in the press box for a month. Every player has said being consistently scratched has been tough for them mentally. It doesn’t sound like it outweighs the benefits, but the proof will be in the pudding. When Evans is crushing it next year, shove this column back in my face.

With the Kraken looking toward the future, I’m absolutely in support of bringing Wright up to get his feet wet at 2C or 3C. Burn the year, work out the bugs, if the priority is making sure he’s ready for training camp. While they’re at it, definitely let top-paid player Dunn ease his way back from an upper-body injury, or just focus on getting healthy and shut him down. They need him going forward and this has turned out to be a long-term issue, stemming from a dangerous hit. The Kraken kept Evans around for a reason – maybe not this reason, but hey – he’s here and could use the experience.