Five weeks after their most recent shootout victory, the Kraken secured another on Saturday night when Ryan Donato scored on his attempt and goaltender Philipp Grubauer denied all three New Jersey Devils he faced.
Another thing the victory guaranteed the Kraken was a .500 record the past five weeks, their most consistent stretch all season. The team’s 7-7 record in that span is more what was expected this season as opposed to typical expansion results akin to squads of yesteryear given far less to work with.
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said after an Easter Sunday practice he’s seen some common traits displayed during the recent run.
“We’ve had real good consistent effort,” Hakstol said. “Our play without the puck, over that stretch, for the most part has been consistent. And probably the biggest thing that goes with that is, once we’ve had the puck, we’ve done a better job of getting up ice, getting ourselves out of our zone and out of trouble — and then onto the offensive side of our game.
“And so, the connection of those pieces has been a little bit better consistently.”
All of it matters when evaluating what went wrong this season and where the Kraken must improve. The front office goal was a team that could play around .500 and stay in the playoff hunt while preserving salary-cap space for late-season add-ons as well as longer-term summer upgrades.
Instead, the Kraken were out of the playoff chase by Thanksgiving.
What’s interesting is this .500 stretch of play came mostly after the Kraken dealt away six players at the trade deadline four weeks ago. So, if this really was a .500 team all along that turned in scrap heap results through early March, it bodes well for a quicker turnaround.
The Kraken’s recent run should at least prevent them from finishing last overall, moving five points up on No. 32 Arizona as of Sunday and holding a game in hand with eight to play. And while the Kraken might not move any higher than No. 30 in the standings, they’re far from the worst expansion team the NHL ever produced.
The Kraken’s 54 points leave them on pace to finish with 60. That’s already more than double the 24 points logged by the team they’ll play Monday night at Climate Pledge Arena, the Ottawa Senators, during their 1992-93 expansion season. It’s also better than the 21 points logged by Washington in 1974-75, or the 30 by the New York Islanders in 1972-73, the 39 by the San Jose Sharks in 1991-92 and the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000, and the 53 by Tampa Bay in 1992-93.
But hold off on celebrations: Those teams were built with brutal expansion draft rules. And the Kraken won’t even match the 83 points registered by the 1993-94 Florida Panthers and likely not the 63 points by the 1998-99 Nashville Predators.
They also lag the 2000-01 Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, who had 71 and 68 points, respectively. For an example of how rough those two teams had it compared to the Kraken, teams in the 2000 expansion draft could protect nine forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.
For the Kraken’s draft — same as with Vegas in 2017 — teams could only protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. Or, eight skaters overall and a goalie.
So, the Kraken were mostly guaranteed a top-nine forward, top-four defenseman and an experienced NHL goalie to choose off every roster. Columbus and Minnesota were getting fourth-line forwards, bottom-pairing defensemen and minor-leaguers.
They were each also picking players at the same time, meaning — unlike the Kraken — they’d often settle for their second choice. The NHL had also expanded the two prior years, diluting the talent pool.
Finally, the Kraken also had an exclusive free agency negotiation window before their draft. They used it to sign goalie Chris Driedger and defensive stalwarts Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson.
The Blue Jackets and Wild paid just $80 million each in 2000 to join the NHL, which, even adjusting for inflation to $132 million today, is still only a fifth the Kraken’s $650 million entry fee. The Kraken paid the massively bigger amount to ensure more favorable rules so a “typical” NHL expansion season — by design — could never happen to them.
But it did.
Hakstol agreed it took time for players to adapt to and execute the system they were expected to play. But even when not winning, he said the team has executed consistently well the past two months starting with an overtime loss to the playoff-bound Boston Bruins.
“And on the nights when we’re winning games, you look at our goaltending performances and they’re a big part,” he said. “Usually, one or both of our specialty teams have performed well. So, all of those pieces have to come together.”
Kraken goalies Grubauer and Driedger have allowed more than three goals in only three of the last 14 games during the .500 stretch and never more than four goals in any contest.
The Kraken had gone nine straight games without a power-play goal before Matty Beniers notched one Saturday. But they’ve also killed off penalties at an 86% rate the past eight contests — well above their season average of 75%.
The Kraken are also 17-4-1 when scoring at least four goals this season. but just 2-36-2 when scoring two goals or fewer — which has happened in 54% of their games.
The offensive impact by Beniers has been immediately noticeable from a skills perspective, including his individual effort rushing down the right side in overtime Saturday that drew a penalty. “He’s ready to be here, there’s no question,” Hakstol said.
And the extent of summer add-ons to follow will depend on how sold the front office is on the validity of the .500 results the past month-plus.