Inside the NHL
Speaking to general manager Ron Francis this week about the impact of COVID-19 on the Kraken, it felt timely to ask about what’s become of this belly flop of a debut season.
Truth is, it’s impossible to separate the season from the COVID impact. The Kraken are at their season’s 40% mark, but it could be at 50% or even 65% depending on whether the NHL makes up all 90-plus postponed league games.
But this isn’t all about COVID-19. The Kraken’s ownership paid a record $650 million franchise fee, and one reason it was so expensive was because it was getting the same favorable expansion draft rules the Vegas Golden Knights followed.
Though Vegas went to the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1, the Kraken are languishing in the Pacific Division basement — 11 points behind the division’s next-closest team, the Vancouver Canucks. They have the conference’s second-worst record and the NHL’s fourth-worst.
And so, Francis has critical work ahead these coming months when his team crams makeup games into a condensed schedule. He must judge what part of this season’s failures are COVID-related and what is a result of mistakes.
That won’t be easy. COVID has made a mess of things. And that’s been a seasonlong Kraken debacle, right from five guys going into protocol just 24 hours before the franchise opener in Las Vegas.
“I don’t think anybody was counting on the coronavirus being as prevalent as it was this year,” Francis said. “That’s part of it. I think we struggled out of the gate with just getting our feet on the ground. We had to cancel team-building events. We opened with five games in eight days on the road. We struggled trying to get practices in when we wanted to with our lineup.
“As a result, I think we’re giving up too many odd-man breaks, and now you’re giving up goals and that affects your goalies’ confidence,” he added. “We’ve had games where the goaltenders made some saves and we haven’t been able to score. And we’ve had games where we’ve been able to score and we haven’t gotten the saves.”
But Francis should also be wary of attributing too much to COVID. Francis made a choice to preserve salary-cap space in July’s NHL expansion draft, which has come back to bite him.
Passing on the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, James van Riemsdyk, Max Domi, Brendan Lemieux and others looks dubious considering the Kraken have scored two goals or fewer in half their games.
You can excuse not taking current 14-goal, 27-point man Tarasenko, who was coming off surgery, and choosing defenseman Vince Dunn from St. Louis instead.
But van Riemsdyk, Domi and Lemieux each have seven goals. And before dismissing that, please note that seven goals would be fourth-highest among active Kraken players and equals the combined output of Alex Wennberg, Calle Jarnkrok and Joonas Donskoi.
Point is, this isn’t about any particular player. It’s about whether a team that’s 10-19-4 should have worried more about the immediate and entertaining its high-paying, first-year fans by going a little bolder.
Any video gamer playing the GM mode setting can stockpile cap space and draft picks for years down the road while current seasons are torched. But in real life, the Kraken plan to hoard cap space was going to work only if the first-year team was competitive enough to keep people interested.
That hasn’t happened. On the morning of the team’s home game against Calgary last week, there were a pair of $300-plus center-ice seats five rows behind the Kraken bench — some of the best in the house — going for $178 each on Ticketmaster. A little further back, nine rows off the ice, a pair could be had for $129 each.
The empty seats throughout Climate Pledge Arena have grown more noticeable, and it isn’t all snow-related or limited to club-level sections where patrons sometimes hang out in hidden VIP areas.
It’s because a last-place team will always have trouble generating demand. And it’s a little early in their existence for the Kraken to be in this spot.
The Kraken didn’t need to go to the Cup Final like Vegas did, or even make the playoffs. But the last thing they expected was to be effectively eliminated from playoff contention weeks before New Year’s Eve.
Beyond scoring, the goaltending has been awful. Advanced statistics show Philipp Grubauer allowing a league-worst 22.8 goals above what’s expected based on shot quality, and Chris Driedger has been inconsistent at best.
It’s possible both are being victimized somewhat by poor play in front of them. Or that Grubauer’s having an off year, as is Driedger with his injury. Again, the team needs to figure it out.
And that will also lead to questions about coach Dave Hakstol and whether players are adapting to his style and system. We’ve seen them do it in spurts, but not consistently enough.
Francis must figure out whether they’ll win with Hakstol’s system going forward. They can’t be in this same spot a year from now.
And sure, Hakstol has his very real COVID excuses. On Monday he lamented how a lack of quality practices had impeded the Kraken’s ability to make adjustments. COVID outbreaks have curtailed Hakstol’s efforts to find consistent forward lines, defensive pairings and special-teams units.
Unlike teams playing together for years, that impacts a new coach with new players.
“Just going right back to the start it just gives you a better chance to get in, get your team together, get to know each other and understand each other,” Francis said of how a COVID-free season might have been different. “You know, with COVID you end up having to cancel practices. You come in, and two guys pop (test positive), and then you’re like ‘Whoo-boy, maybe we should cancel practice than to have five, six or seven guys pop.’ So there’s things that you adjust in your schedule.
“I think from Day 1, I said it was important for us to build this thing from the ground up. That part hasn’t changed. I think the worst thing you do is you get into situations, you panic. And then you give up valuable assets to get something that may or may not change the upcoming seasons.”
No one’s expecting panic moves. What will be expected is honest reflection and analysis, because whatever has gone on so far wasn’t the plan and hasn’t worked.
And expansion team or not, next season’s plan will have to keep fans in this new NHL market engaged beyond Christmas.