Kraken general manager Ron Francis feels his team has “found a way to lose” too often and expected it to be more competitive in the standings a month into the season.
Francis built a squad he felt was strong on goaltending and defense. And though early scoring woes appear to have righted themselves to where the Kraken more regularly generate enough offense to win, that isn’t happening because of a lack of execution elsewhere.
“We felt that goaltending and defense would give us a chance in each game,” said Francis, whose team has dropped four consecutive games and six of the past seven to sit last in the Pacific Division. “And then the question was scoring and can we score enough or not? I think we certainly felt going into the season that we would be a competitive team.
“I think we’ve had some games from the start of the season where I’ve felt we found a way to lose rather than gain a point or two. And when you give up six or eight of those points, you’re in a different situation than you’re sitting in now.
“But no excuses,” he added. “We just have to continue to grow and build and find a way to get better.”
In a league where it’s critical to log at least a point by frequently sending games to overtime and shootouts, the Kraken keep losing in regulation time.
They have just one point from overtime or shootouts and are among only 13 teams with fewer than two games decided beyond regulation. As a result, they entered Monday nine points back of the final wild-card playoff spot, which is nowhere near where Francis anticipated.
The Kraken opened the season scoring three goals or fewer in seven of 10 games — managing only one or two goals in six of those. But starting with a Nov. 4 win over Buffalo, they’ve scored four or more in three of the past five.
Jordan Eberle had a hat trick against Buffalo and has since gone on a tear, scoring a team-leading eight times. Jared McCann is back after two weeks in COVID-19 protocol and has five goals, and Alex Wennberg hit a groove and sits second in overall team points with two goals and nine assists.
The bigger problem the past week or two is the Kraken allowing four goals or more in four consecutive games — all losses — to negate that recent offensive surge. Overall, they’ve allowed at least four goals in nine of 15 games.
“I think the expected goals against is the big discrepancy from where we thought it would be,” Francis said. “And it seems to be different things on different nights. Certainly, there have been games where the goaltenders feel they’d like one or two back. And I think there have been nights where the (defensemen) and the forwards, they’d like to do something different with one or two. And that’s sort of adding to our frustration at this point.”
Francis doesn’t plan big changes. NHL teams don’t typically swing blockbuster deals this early in the season, as most are still evaluating what they have.
He knew he’d have a thin margin for error given how the team was built, the difference between wins and losses potentially swinging on a lone goal for or against. The Kraken are 0-9-0 when allowing more than three goals, 4-2-0 when yielding three or fewer and 3-0-1 when they give up no more than two.
In signing free-agent goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, who combined for a 2.00 goals-against average last season, the expectation was something closer to what has generated a 3-0-1 record for the Kraken thus far. Instead, with Driedger previously hurt and limited to just one start and a spot relief appearance, the team’s goals-against average of 3.66 is bringing results more akin to its 0-9-0 mark in games where more than three are allowed.
The team’s league-worst save percentage of .859 is also nowhere near the .924 that Grubauer and Driedger combined for last season. Most of the difference is on Grubauer, who has started 12 of 15 games.
Advanced statistics show the Kraken defenders actually giving up fewer “high danger” scoring chances than most teams but getting burned big on those becoming goals. The Natural Stat Trick analytics website Monday had the Kraken allowing the fourth fewest high-danger chances but posting the worst save percentage and second-most goals allowed on those opportunities.
Still, stats don’t always tell the full story.
For example, there wasn’t much Grubauer could do Saturday when his team allowed two breakaways and a 2-on-1 chance resulting in Minnesota’s three goals against him. But at least one or two unscreened or longer distanced goals by Anaheim the previous game probably should have been stopped.
“There’s a lot of things that have factored into it,” Francis said. “We started with five (games) in eight (days) on the road, and then (Driedger) got injured so we had to run (Grubauer) probably harder than we want. You’ve got a team with guys trying to figure each other out, figure out a new system. Certainly, there’s been more than one time we’ve sort of left him (Grubauer) out to dry, and I think that factors into things.
“I’m not making excuses for him,” Francis added. “I think if you talk to him, he’d say he needs to be a little bit better. But as a group we all need to be a little bit better in situations as well, too.”
Beyond more balancing of the Grubauer-Driedger tandem — which Francis said “we’ll certainly manage going forward” — the Kraken must improve the league’s second-worst power play and avoid some of their recent slow starts.
“Some of that is the guys being a little tentative, but we’ve got to get beyond that,” Francis said. “We’ve got to continue to grow with who we are as a team, and having a good start is a big part of that for us.”
Indeed, the team’s expected goal differential puts it middle of the pack at 16th in the NHL. That would suggest this should be closer to a .500 team than 4-10-1.
“It’s not like we’re not in hockey games,” Francis said. “I think we’re in hockey games every night to where it’s going to be a lot of close games. So we’ve found a way in some of these to kind of, in my opinion, beat ourselves at the wrong time vs. find a way to win. So hopefully we get that turned around quickly and start going in the other direction.”