One period into the Kraken’s win Thursday night over Chicago and it became obvious why they can use top draft pick Matty Beniers and any good buddy help he brings along with him.
Just kidding on the latter part as it will be No. 2 overall pick Beniers alone soon joining the Kraken fresh off his University of Michigan squad being eliminated in the semifinal portion of the NCAA “Frozen Four” championship. Kraken general manager Ron Francis was in Boston to see Michigan’s game and spoke to the centerman Friday in hopes of getting a deal done, though Beniers could opt to recuperate a few days before making his NHL debut.
The Kraken getting a look at Beniers in the NHL gives them a head start toward figuring out how much more offense next season’s team will need. And judging by Thursday’s win over Chicago, they’ll need plenty.
The Kraken, displaying ample effort throughout their two-game road trip, thoroughly dominated the Blackhawks in the opening period — outshooting them 17-3 — yet failed to put a single puck in the net.
And though they eventually mustered two goals for a 2-0 victory, they’d lost 4-1 the prior night against a better St. Louis team after squandering multiple chances to tie what had been a 2-1 game. The Kraken have scored two goals or fewer in four of their past five contests and are still scratching and clawing for wins even while getting the consistently strong goaltending from Chris Driedger and Philipp Grubauer they’ve waited for all season.
So, if the goal next season is to avoid another cellar-dwelling experience, it stands to reason it will take more than just improved netminding. Grubauer put it best after his second shutout of the season Thursday when asked about the team’s progress.
“There’s been some good games and then there’s some bad games again,” Grubauer said. “And then there’s some good games again. So, we’ve got to find that consistency.”
Grubauer was asked to comment about a tough season for him both personally and from a team perspective, coming off a Vezina Trophy finalist campaign with a Presidents Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche squad.
“It’s not the way I wanted it to go this season,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit more challenging than other years. I think everybody, if you go across the room and ask everybody, we had to find each other’s chemistry.
“And like I said, there’s been some good games, it’s been some bad games and also it’s been a learning curve for everybody. The team has to bond together and has to get to know each other. And sometimes, it happens a little bit quick and sometimes it takes a little bit longer.”
The Kraken have looked more like a bonded team since the trade deadline, playing about as well as possible from an effort perspective in going 4-4 over eight contests after dealing away six regulars. Had they played at a 4-4 clip all season, nobody would have issues with their debut campaign, and they’d be fighting for a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the Kraken have shown that same high-energy level in periodic bursts throughout the season, but it’s proven unsustainable over a full 82-game schedule. So, extrapolating that the past nine games automatically equates to a .500 record next season so long as Grubauer and Driedger both show up could amount to yet another serious miscalculation.
The Kraken already gambled and lost big that they could hoard long-term salary-cap space while still putting a capable team on the ice this season that could at least contend for the playoffs through March.
Now, even with their goaltending finally nearing the level they’d expected all along, the rest of the team’s offensive skill set is still barely enough to go 4-4 over an eight-game post-deadline stretch (they are 5-4 counting the game before the deadline) in which the overall effort approaches playoff-level hockey. Seriously, the Kraken’s effort level has done the city proud for two-plus weeks, but it’s barely been good enough to draw more than a penalty per game from referees apparently unimpressed by the team’s offensive capability. And it almost wasn’t enough to get past a bad Chicago team on the downslide that was mostly outplayed, but still came a hit goal post away from tying things late.
So, Beniers, 19, should help start that climb toward .500 semi-respectability. With more, one presumes, to follow in terms of summer reinforcements.
Ordinarily, a teenage draft selection can’t be expected to transform a franchise overnight and Beniers likely won’t, which is why the Kraken also must keep adding experienced NHL pieces. But Beniers is gifted with natural offensive talents that will inevitably boost a Kraken squad that took the ice in St. Louis with just one 20-goal scorer in Jared McCann compared to seven for a Blues team that isn’t even assured of home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
That’s the talent gap separating the Kraken from playoff contenders. Not guaranteed playoff teams, mind you. Just contenders. But for a Kraken team whose season effectively ended in November, contending this deep into the schedule next year with a roster infused by Beniers and other additions would undoubtedly mark a pleasant turnaround.