Inside the NHL

DETROIT — When the Kraken started goalie Chris Driedger a second consecutive game instead of using Philipp Grubauer on Monday at Buffalo, it took me back a decade-plus to baseball spring training in Arizona.

Yeah, it’s tough to conjure up images of baseball and sunshine while inside a hockey arena with snow flurries and low-30s temperatures outside. But the decision to sit Grubauer in a game many assumed he’d automatically take his turn in reminded me of what I’d once been told by longtime major-league infielder Tony Phillips about the value of competition.

Phillips in spring 2008 was a Mariners guest coach, and one day I spotted him on a back field working with young infielder Jose Lopez. After waiting them out patiently, I sat alone chatting with Phillips, who without prompting said he wasn’t thrilled with how the team was handling Lopez and then-equally prized shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

He didn’t want it printed at the time, as he was still working with both, but he felt they were becoming “soft” after being handed jobs in camp. At the least, he added, the team should have brought in veterans who could push them for everyday playing time.

It was a point that resonated. Those Mariners went on to lose 101 games, and Lopez and Betancourt within two years had played their way out of town.

Sure, many had opinions about Phillips and his own volatile 18-year career, but no one ever accused him of being unwilling to battle for a job. 

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Phillips died of a heart attack in 2016 when still only 56. I hadn’t thought about him in a while, until Grubauer again sat after three of his better starts this season.

Now, no one is about to confuse Grubauer, a 31-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist last season, with a pair of journeymen infielders such as Lopez and Betancourt. But the same idea Phillips espoused about the value of competition and athletes pushing each other for playing time appears alive and well in the Kraken net.

Simply put: Grubauer and Driedger from here on need to feel like they must earn their starts. This isn’t a knock on their ability or professionalism. It’s just good business sense by the Kraken and will likely achieve better results.

For his part, Kraken coach Dave Hakstol says he’s a fan of creating competition among players. We’ve seen good defensemen, young and veteran, sidelined as healthy scratches all season, including Will Borgen, who registered his first NHL point Monday at Buffalo after waiting until last weekend to finally make his Kraken debut.

Hakstol said Borgen playing “a competitive game” Saturday against Florida earned him the Buffalo start.

“The element of competition is always good,” Hakstol said. “And teammates support each other in that competition. And that’s very, very important.

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“But also, there’s just the confidence of knowing that at each of those positions … that depth is very important.”

And likewise, the depth at the goaltending position, where the Kraken spent $9.4 million of $81.5 million in salary-cap space, must come into play as the season progresses.

There’s no need to rehash the earlier bad statistics put up by Grubauer and Driedger. Both have turned in better recent outings.

But when the Kraken paid Grubauer $5.9 million annually and Driedger $3.5 million, the idea wasn’t to use them in ordinary starter and backup roles. That would have been big money wasted on Driedger, which is why it was surprising to see Grubauer start the season’s first four games.

By Game 4, Grubauer was routed in Philadelphia, forcing Driedger to come on in relief and eventually injure his knee. It took two weeks for Driedger to return, and then a while for the Kraken to use him again.

But Driedger has been back a month. And before the Sabres game, he had started just three contests to 16 for Grubauer. So that needed to change, no matter the reasoning behind the season-opening Grubauer starts and limited Driedger usage. 

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Look, no one expects a 50-50 split. But it can’t be 16-3 ever again. Going off the goalie stats, that split of games hardly succeeded as a strategy, anyway.

So though it may have surprised some to see Driedger start against Buffalo, it really shouldn’t have. Grubauer had played arguably his two best games of the season in wins last week over Washington and Carolina, then took a 3-0 loss Friday at Tampa Bay.

Driedger, meanwhile, posted his best start of the season in a 4-1 win in Florida on Saturday. So based off their most recent performances, Driedger’s was better and he earned the follow-up.

Not that Grubauer’s last start was bad. He kept his team in it.  

And chances are Grubauer was always going to start one of the two final games of this trip, so seeing him in goal Wednesday night against the Red Wings wouldn’t shock anyone. The Kraken want to close the trip with a win in their first visit to an “Original Six” city, and Grubauer has looked solid his last three outings.

Now, had Driedger turned aside 40 shots and shut out the Sabres, we might be having a different conversation. But that isn’t what happened.

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Driedger yielded four goals in the 7-4 victory over Buffalo, two after puck caroms off the end boards he was slow reacting to. 

So it wasn’t a standout job.

Granted, Driedger made needed saves, and once spotted a 3-0 lead he never let the Sabres get closer than two. If he was an NFL quarterback — to continue mixing our sports metaphors — we’d credit Driedger with “managing” the game.

His performance was more than good enough to win. Good enough to make Grubauer sit again? Nope.  

And that’s how it should be going forward.

For the Kraken to push Grubauer and Driedger to be the best versions of themselves, they need real competition with consequences. That can still mean Grubauer gets the most games, which he undoubtedly will. And by all means, reward great outings by either. But with the understanding that merely being “good” won’t always mean good enough to play next.

It’s too late to help the Mariners infield from 2008. But the way the Kraken are finally playing, pushing both goalies to turn in nightly performances ranging from good to great could have Hakstol’s group flirting with .500 before the year is done.