It’s rare in any sport to see between-games coaching get as rapid and visible results as it did for the Kraken their past two victories.
The Kraken had posted a lone overtime victory in their first season-plus before notching two in succession last week to bolster the team’s surprising 10-5-3 record. Those victories came after a practice week coach Dave Hakstol and his assistants largely devoted to working on three-on-three overtime play, one of many adjustments that have worked out well for the staff in the season’s early going.
“We obviously haven’t had a lot of success in overtime this year,” Kraken alternate captain Jordan Eberle said after potting the winning goal in Saturday’s extra session against the Los Angeles Kings. “And then, the last two we put a lot of work and emphasis into it. When you go into those games, those are huge points that you give up. You never know when you may need that extra point to get in [to the playoffs].”
That the Kraken are talking playoffs nearly six weeks in — they’d been realistically eliminated by this point a year ago — is testament to offseason roster upgrades and adjustments by Hakstol’s staff. The Kraken coach came under fire during the team’s inaugural season for its worse-than-expected showing, with several players appearing to struggle adapting to his rapid, two-way transitional system.
But this season, the team has tightened up defensively in front of goaltender Martin Jones — on Monday named one of the NHL’s three stars of the week, a Kraken first — while delivering improved penalty killing and a more balanced, four-line scoring attack. The Kraken entered Monday tied with Tampa Bay for seventh overall in the 32-team league despite one of the NHL’s tougher early schedules.
In fact, the Kraken players largely feel their record should be better. One reason it isn’t: a handful of games largely given away late, some in overtime.
The team’s third consecutive overtime defeat this season happened Nov. 13 against Winnipeg, when a tired line gave the puck away in the extra session’s opening shift. By then, Hakstol had decided change was needed, knowing he had two practices before their next game against the New York Rangers.
“We were on the ice too long,” Hakstol said of the Kraken’s overtime play. “We were taking one more stab at the offensive side instead of making a good decision to make a change with possession of the puck and reset when we don’t like what we see.
“We were just forcing it a little bit too much,” he added. “And at three-on-three, it’s usually a mistake like that, that will come back to haunt you or for sure create an opportunity against.”
And so, in practice last Tuesday, Hakstol went over those mistakes in a morning meeting and had the team out for a reduced-ice three-on-three scrimmage.
“It may not have looked like it, but there’s a real purpose to it,” Hakstol said of the scrimmage. “And it’s all part of some of the little things that we need to do better at three-on-three.”
Among the primary areas the scrimmage helped players focus on? Knowing when and where not to change lines while maintaining puck possession.
“It’s a possession game,” Hakstol said. “So there are a lot of pieces built into it. But three-on-three is something that grows with chemistry. No question about it. You can have some basic rules, some basic systematic looks you want to put into place.
“But that grows with chemistry as well. And we need to continue growing there.”
Hakstol chooses practice themes based on immediate need, and with the Kraken then 1-8 lifetime in overtime and 0-3 this season, it couldn’t wait any longer. The scrimmage made for a more physical practice than Hakstol would ordinarily employ with his team playing every other night, but this time he had the gift of three days between games.
The day after the scrimmage was less physical, with Hakstol verbally reiterating the team’s three-on-three concepts and structures in his morning meeting and reinforcing them during on-ice drills.
The message apparently stuck.
It had taken only 54 seconds of overtime for the Kraken to lose the Winnipeg game. A season-opening loss in Anaheim had also ended just 55 seconds into overtime.
But against the Rangers in Thursday’s overtime, the Kraken looked entirely different — entering the opposing zone, then circling back out of it and changing lines when they didn’t like what they saw. Nearly four minutes would elapse before Justin Schultz scored the winner following an Eberle push down the left side.
“To be honest with you, we practiced three-on-three yesterday and the day before, so it was huge,” left wing Jared McCann said after the win. “We felt more confident going into it. We made some plays, but we were smart with the puck.”
McCann added that players remembered the major take-aways from those practice sessions.
“You don’t need to force it,” he said of the puck. “Hold on to it. It’s a puck possession time of the game. You’ve got to just hold on to it, make the right play and wait for your chances.”
Two nights later, the Kraken waited until 2:23 of overtime before Eberle’s winner. The Kings remain a point up on the Kraken in the Pacific Division, so not giving another point away to them this time could factor down the road.
And that’s the type of improvement Hakstol and other coaches get graded on from season to season. That positive change directly resulting from coaching in this case happened from game to game — and in such visible fashion with two extra points garnered — was an added bonus.
“We’ve worked on it, and obviously it’s worked out because we’ve found a couple of ways to win,” Eberle said. “And those are huge. Especially against a division opponent.”