Inside the NHL
Something coach Dave Hakstol said after the Kraken’s victory Sunday night got me thinking about why this inaugural season went awry so quickly.
Hakstol’s team had looked great against the Florida Panthers. Not so two nights earlier in a lopsided loss to the St. Louis Blues. Hakstol quickly noted that the Blues game was 24 hours after his team had defeated San Jose, making his group’s physical preparation more challenging than for the Florida contest played on a day’s rest.
“If you want to compare and contrast the two nights … we played a back-to-back against a team that had three days’ rest,” Hakstol said of the Blues debacle. “That had something to do with it. Nobody brought that up. Nobody talked about that in our room. Nobody made that an issue. But you know, we had a tough time against a heavy team that defended well and didn’t give us a whole lot of space.”
Well, nobody’s mentioned it much in context with this season, either, but the Kraken’s disappointing 13-24-4 record could similarly be the result of a physically taxing style of play. It takes grinding work for this team’s system to string together three or four nightly goals while preventing enough to consistently win.
And in all honesty, they haven’t appeared up to the challenge enough nights until the past two weeks. Forward Yanni Gourde put it best after the 5-3 win over a Panthers team with the league’s top record.
“Everybody was committed to winning this game,” Gourde said. “It takes everyone for this team to win a hockey game. That’s what we did tonight. And that’s what we’ve got to bring every single night.”
By that, he meant chipping pucks into the offensive zone, winning races for them and battling hard to maintain possession. It means scrambling back to your own end on turnovers, moving guys from in front of the net and lifting sticks on rebound chances.
The skating part alone can be exhausting, which is why disciplined positioning is so important. A good transitional team on offense must get back as quickly on defense if turnovers happen. Or you get, well, the first few months of this season.
We’re now halfway done with the Kraken on pace for 60 points. Numerous statistical models, pundits and professional oddsmakers pegged this as closer to a 90-point team.
Cue the well-meaning but misinformed folks suggesting the Kraken were always more of a pre-Vegas Golden Knights NHL expansion squad because gosh, what do you expect with a bunch of other teams’ bottom-roster castoffs?
Except that isn’t true.
Mark Giordano isn’t a castoff bottom-pairing defender, neither is Jamie Oleksiak, Adam Larsson or Carson Soucy. Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz weren’t third- or fourth-liners on good teams, let alone average ones. Gourde was a third-liner only on a dynastic Tampa Bay squad and at least a second-liner just about anyplace else. Jared McCann replaced Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh when he got hurt.
Vince Dunn was a future power-play quarterback many teams wanted.
Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger? Nary a pundit or fan felt either was anything but an above-average goalie.
Previous expansion teams would have begged for the talent to which the Kraken had access. Look it up. Just because they passed on Vladimir Tarasenko doesn’t mean everybody else in the expansion draft was terrible.
So please, stop the takes that the Kraken are right where they should be. The only people who champion five-year plans where three or four seasons get wasted to stockpile draft picks are those who’ve never bought or sold a package of $300 season tickets.
This is the real world. Not the GM mode of some video game.
Every season counts. You might be building for the future, but when charging top-end ticket prices the present-day product still must entertain. The Kraken’s management understands this.
This also isn’t Major League Baseball. The NHL has a salary cap. And the few million bucks the Kraken may have saved by not spending on an extra forward or two would barely cover the cost of bathroom towels in the luxury suites of Climate Pledge Arena.
The Kraken aren’t cutting roster corners to pay for towels. They are underachieving. Come on, say it with me out loud. You won’t hurt their feelings. This team through 41 games entering Tuesday night’s contest against Nashville was supposed to be better.
And we’ve seen recent evidence. Facing a gauntlet of teams capable of pushing their most recent losing streak into record territory, the Kraken played their best extended hockey this season.
They went 3-5 their past eight games with Brandon Tanev out for the season, Schwartz gone until mid-February, Driedger more recently lost to COVID-19 protocol and Oleksiak to illness.
Not to mention, that 3-5 record while playing St. Louis twice, Florida, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Colorado and Dallas easily could have been 4-4 or 5-4 with a lucky bounce. That’s good hockey.
Sure, it isn’t Vegas good as in its 2017-18 debut. But it was never supposed to be. Going 3-5 against the aforementioned teams would be 4-4 or 5-3 against most others. And playing a 4-4 pace all season is the .500 hockey the Kraken realistically aimed for.
But the relentless style that enables the Kraken to play .500 is tough to do over 82 games. It requires a buy-in by players.
The best playoff teams typically play such hockey over short series spurts. And we’ve heard enough Kraken players say that true 60-minute perfection is impossible — it is, because the opposing team is also trying to win — to know they’ve felt the physical effects.
But if the Kraken play one stinker every four games, it isn’t the end of the world. It’s when they do it two of every three games that it becomes problematic.
We’ve seen improvement the past two weeks after the Kraken had that nine-day schedule layoff, staging the equivalent of a mini-training camp at their practice facility.
If everything since amounts to their season started over, it’s going closer to the plan. The fact that hard-nosed players such as Marcus Johansson, Calle Jarnkrok, Mason Appleton and Colin Blackwell are factoring into games more is a sign of that.
It won’t salvage playoff hopes. But the physical buy-in we’re now seeing might be enough to get more fans likewise buying in to the Kraken beyond just a new-sport novelty act.