Inside the NHL

The sight of Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer turning away shots Monday night to roars of “Gruuu!” from a Colorado crowd that used to be his had to be a welcome development for short-suffering fans of his new team.

It wasn’t long ago, barely seven months to be exact, that Grubauer was a Vezina Trophy finalist on an Avalanche playoff squad. That’s far removed from today’s Grubauer of the .882 save percentage, though if he plays more like he did in the Kraken’s 4-3 loss on Monday, the netminding problem should resolve itself.

“We didn’t get the win,” Grubauer said. “But personally we can, or I can, build on a game like that for sure.”

And therein lies the key, not just for Grubauer but the entire team.

We’ve seen this Kraken act before. They’ll play a strong game, sometimes even winning once or twice in a row, but then revert to losing form, and the positives go out the proverbial Zamboni chute. 

Bottom line: This hasn’t been a consistently good team. It wasn’t supposed to win a Stanley Cup, but it was built to compile roughly as many victories as defeats and theoretically stay in the playoff hunt.

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So now the job is to figure out what has happened and whether this plan, or system, can work going forward. And nights such as Monday provide more of a road map to that.

Forget the unreliable analysis that goes, “If only Grubauer had been a Vezina-type goalie all season the Kraken would be a .500 team.” That type of thinking will get the Kraken in long-term trouble if anyone in charge truly believes it, because it ignores other deficiencies that begot a 10-20-4 record.

Fans in other sports have used similarly flawed thinking.

If only their hated closer had been swapped out, their baseball team would be in the World Series instead of last place. Or if their favorite quarterback hadn’t busted his pinkie, their team would be playing for a Super Bowl instead of sitting at home.

The Kraken’s biggest enemy hasn’t been Grubauer. It’s been consistency, or a lack of it. They’ll play impressively in barely losing to Philadelphia and Calgary, then abandon the plan against Vancouver.

Monday’s game was one of the better ones, good enough for the Kraken to be leading 52 minutes in against a Stanley Cup contender. Grubauer gave up four goals, and none was his fault — one off a defender’s skate, another kicked in that shouldn’t have counted, one off a drop pass to the slot on an odd-man rush and a final one off a pinpoint Nazem Kadri wrister on a 3-on-1 break. 

No goaltender in the universe stops those pucks. And yet they counted for four goals against and saddled Grubauer with a save percentage of .886 for the night that practically mirrored his season number. 

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This isn’t a Grubauer forgiveness column. He’s been awful on some goals, subpar this season and knows it. The point is, it’s been a while since he truly cost his team a game. As bad as the goaltending has looked at times, the Kraken probably net about four additional wins at most even if everything went as planned between the pipes.

That’s because you can’t just look at the bad numbers in aggregate. You must play the “What if?” game the other way as well. The Kraken’s last victory was four weeks ago in San Jose. But what happens if defensemen Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson both fail to stop pucks headed for open nets behind goalie Chris Driedger? A loss most likely. 

What happens if Grubauer doesn’t stand on his head to beat Carolina and Washington in games that saw the Kraken badly outshot? Or steal early road points in Nashville and Columbus? What if Driedger doesn’t do the same in Florida?

In professional sports, with elite athletes at every position, one player rarely changes a team’s fortunes to the degree some think they do.

Sure, it’s fair to look at a goalie’s overall numbers and judge whether he’s having a good or bad season. But where folks get into trouble is trying to extrapolate team wins and losses from individual performance.

Driedger gave up four goals to the Buffalo Sabres in November but was never in danger of losing. Grubauer gave up four to Colorado but played well enough to earn a shutout. Driedger nearly shut out San Jose but came two saves by his defensemen away from losing.

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Grubauer looked bad in Philadelphia back in October, but so did his tired team that would have lost even with Georges Vezina himself in goal.

Numbers can be tricky. The Kraken would certainly have a better record had Grubauer and Driedger both looked more like last season’s versions. But how much better? Not as much as many think.

Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said it best right before the Colorado game. Hakstol wanted his players playing consistently from shift to shift regardless of inevitable setbacks.

And they mostly did before losing late to a championship-level team. Repeat that performance Wednesday in Dallas, they’ll probably beat the Stars. Thing is, they haven’t repeated it consistently at that level all season. Lose to Dallas by two or three, it’s all out the Zamboni chute again.

So we’ll see.

Again, this isn’t a typical pre-Vegas expansion team. Anyone arguing that probably never watched an NHL game until two or three years ago. The Kraken paid big to obtain some of the best expansion-draft advantages in NHL history and, regardless of whether they squandered some picks, nonetheless acquired players those previous first-year squads would never have gotten close to.

This wasn’t built to be a team of 40-goal snipers. But the high-energy, transitional system was supposed to offset that. What happened? The offense and goaltending sure was good enough to nearly upset Colorado the other night. The Kraken need to figure out why that hasn’t consistently happened. 

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So we’ll see whether the Kraken team from Denver shows up in Dallas. And sure, that needs to include the same good version of Grubauer, or Driedger. They’ll need to earn starts, just like their teammates. 

But you win as a team, you lose as one. So far, this Kraken team hasn’t been very good.

And expansion team or not, we’ll know more by week’s end whether the Kraken’s game Monday night was truly a step toward becoming better.