There’s no more fitting symbol than goalie Philipp Grubauer for a second-year Kraken team hoping to register a bounce-back season on just about every front.
The onetime Vezina Trophy finalist, coming off his worst statistical NHL campaign, was the first Kraken player to meet with the media during Thursday’s opening of training camp.
For Grubauer and his teammates, seeking much improvement from a 30th overall finish, this opening practice was quite different from 12 months ago, when COVID-19 protocols largely prevented an expansion squad from coming together.
“It was hard last year with COVID and everything to kind of get to know each other,” Grubauer said after the morning practice session at the Kraken Community Iceplex. “Everybody was a little bit scared that they’d have to miss three or four weeks if you hang out due to the COVID protocol. So there was not much team-building off the ice.
“But now everybody knows each other. Everybody feels comfortable, and I think that’s a huge part as well this year.”
Whether it’s Grubauer looking to revert to his form with the Colorado Avalanche, a team hoping to contend beyond Christmas, or players such as Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz returning from season-ending injuries, there are comeback themes surrounding every aspect of this squad.
Even the robust crowds watching the morning and afternoon practice sessions — a hefty number of them looking on from inside the facility’s 32 Bar & Grill restaurant — were a welcome change from a year prior, when the venue wasn’t yet fully completed and had operated at reduced fan capacity due to pandemic restrictions.
Having everybody more comfortable and in sync with each other’s tendencies would certainly help Grubauer bolster an .889 save percentage and a league-worst advanced analytics mark of allowing 31.5 goals more than he was “expected” to yield on shots. He wasn’t communicating effectively with his defensemen and forwards until well into the season.
“It’s important to look at what the mistakes were last year from a personal and a team perspective, for sure,” he said. “Because you can learn from that and adjust it.”
But getting there, as opposed to the 60-point squad that missed some preseason projections from a year ago by as much as 30 points, requires more than just will. The Kraken struggled to score more than two goals a game most nights and often failed to convert solid effort into standings points.
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol has some new pieces to help bridge that gap, starting with forward imports Oliver Bjorkstrand and Andre Burakovsky, plus first-round draft picks Matty Beniers and Shane Wright. For now, he’ll spend camp finding which players work best together and can replicate that work in games, starting with preseason matchups Monday and Tuesday against Edmonton and Calgary at Climate Pledge Arena.
Hakstol had Beniers centering a line of Ryan Donato — his Boston-area training partner — on left wing and Bjorkstrand on the right during Thursday’s afternoon scrimmage. Another line had Yanni Gourde at center, Jared McCann on the left and Jordan Eberle at right wing.
“We saw Day 1 of options, which I’m not going to put a whole lot of weight on because of … energy, excitement, fatigue,” Hakstol said. “We’re going to give some of the combinations a little bit of time together. I don’t want to just mix and match from day to day. So we’ll give everybody a couple of days together and then look for some different combinations.”
Hakstol said Beniers “looks ready to jump into his spot” — though he held off on how aggressively he’ll look to add him to the team’s top lines. He’s also holding off naming a captain right away, saying he’ll go with alternates Gourde, Eberle, Schwartz and Adam Larsson for now and perhaps even into the regular season depending on how things unfold.
One bonus for Hakstol was seeing Tanev and Schwartz out doing full drills with no hesitation. Tanev was lost for the season in December after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL in a knee, but he proclaimed himself fully recovered after Thursday’s workouts with no hesitation in his game.
Schwartz played in only 37 games last season due to a hand injury and then an unspecified upper-body injury that ended his campaign with 18 contests remaining. Before the injuries, Schwartz had been a top-line left wing, a key power-play presence and led the team in assists.
“He’s kind of a guy that fixes any line you put him on,” Hakstol said. “You put him on a line, and that line is going to find success. The way he goes about his business is a little bit under the radar. … The things that he does out there to generate possession and more importantly, to generate offense off that possession, are really important.”
Schwartz had seemed somewhat pessimistic about his recovery outlook at season’s end — wanting second opinions from specialists — but said Thursday that all had been resolved.
“I’ve gotten a lot of tests done, seen a lot of doctors,” Schwartz said, declining to specify the exact injury. “I went down some different paths, and feel like I got good help and that it could help me a lot this year.”
Now it’s a matter of Schwartz parlaying that into a bounce-back season — for him and the team.
“We’ve got a new team this year,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got a lot of new players, got a lot better over this summer. I think each guy’s hungry to prove ourselves and prove to each other that we can be a lot better, more competitive and be in a much better spot come March and April.”