All season long, the Kraken have tossed around phrases such as “fast start” and “60 minutes” and “forecheck” along with “hard work” and “battle” to describe keys to victory.
If that sounds like a rough go, it’s because it is. Not every NHL team can play the Kraken’s fast, physical transitional style over an 82-game schedule. In fact, despite some blown multi-goal leads that led to losses, the team’s 29-15-5 record, good for first place in the Pacific Division, might be the best attainable given their demanding style.
And when they lose, though they’ll never admit it, it’s usually due to the Kraken taking a much-needed breather. This will again come out in phrasing used by players championing the need to “play our system” and “keep things simple” or else “bad things can happen.”
Well, that system is darn hard to play. There’s nothing simple about keeping things simple when it involves putting your head down and plowing through the other guy on nights when out-skating him isn’t enough.
The Tampa Bay Lightning perfected this relentless approach while winning consecutive Stanley Cup championships and a third finals appearance in a row last season. The New York Islanders team that nearly dethroned the Lightning in the playoffs two seasons ago also played a similar style through a pandemic-abbreviated schedule and three playoff rounds.
Small wonder that two of the biggest proponents of and adherents to this Kraken style are former Lightning player Yanni Gourde and ex-Islanders veteran Jordan Eberle. A similar buy-in by teammates this season compared with last — where players were shipped out and new ones imported — has keyed the newfound success.
The question is whether the Kraken can maintain this arduous pace over 82 games, make the playoffs and keep winning from there. With injuries and aches mounting, they may need to settle for winning three out of every five from here and catching their breath the other two.
Again, no one will ever admit to that out loud.
But given what’s been achieved — one of the league’s top road records and beating powerhouse Boston, Toronto, New Jersey and Colorado squads — it’s a trade-off they’ll likely grudgingly accept to reach the finish line intact.
In the meantime, let’s hand out some grades at the NHL All-Star break:
They lack truly elite goal scorers, but when a fourth-liner such as Daniel Sprong scores 15 and bottom-sixer Ryan Donato has 12 it bridges the gap.
Led by Jared McCann with 23 goals and Matty Beniers with 17, the Kraken have 15 players with at least five. And that balance across all four forward lines is why the Kraken lead the NHL in goals scored at even strength with 133.
To hear coach Dave Hakstol tell it, the offense is generated by the team’s defensive ability more than a scoring thrust. That’s a testament to the two-way ability of the forward group.
The only question is whether they maintain this without adding a natural goal scorer. Their NHL-high shooting percentage suggests scoring may dry up, though the team has several specialists in one-timed shots that can inflate such percentages without luck necessarily being the cause. We’ve yet to see the full capabilities of team points leader Andre Burakovsky and fellow newcomer Oliver Bjorkstrand.
They have performed better than expected, with Vince Dunn — on Wednesday named the NHL’s third star of the month for January — blossoming into a top-level threat. He’s had help from defensive partner Adam Larsson backstopping his every offensive gambit and shutting down opponents’ zone entries.
Will Borgen has also emerged as a solid everyday defender on the third pairing alongside Carson Soucy. This group has benefitted from durability more than any other, because depth beyond the six regulars is precariously thin. A recent injury that caused Justin Schultz to miss five games is something that will likely need addressing by moving draft picks to add another capable blue-liner.
The surface numbers aren’t great, with Martin Jones and Philipp Grubauer posting respective save percentages of .895 and .897. But their play, especially the past two months, has been good enough for the Kraken to win most nights. Despite recent speculation, it’s doubtful the team adds a goalie by the March 3 NHL trade deadline — namely because Grubauer’s contract has four-plus years to go and injured backup Chris Driedger could be ready to return from a knee injury by April.
Though the Jones-Grubauer tandem could carry the Kraken into the playoffs, they’ll likely ride just one in the postseason. Don’t look now, but Grubauer has save percentages of .914, .931, .963 and .960 in his past four starts and has gone .914 or higher in nine of his past 13.
Jones leads the team with 23 victories, but the battle for No. 1 goalie isn’t quite done.
One downside to four balanced lines is there are no truly elite scorers for the power play. The Kraken sit 20th of 32 teams, converting at 20.3%, and their “expected goals” total is fifth-worst — suggesting the low success rate still might be higher than deserved. Again, between McCann, Beniers, Sprong and Eeli Tolvanen, the power play has several one-timed shot specialists — which tends to make goal totals appear inflated — but this will be an area of concern come playoff time.
Penalty killing was abysmal until the Kraken fended off 17 consecutive opportunities the past seven games. Even so, the Kraken remain second worst in the league at 72.3% efficiency. They’ll need to hope this latest adjustment to “simplify” their attacking and clearances keeps working, or avoid the penalty box altogether.
Hakstol’s even-keel approach was oft-criticized last season, but now he’s whispered as a potential Jack Adams Trophy finalist for coach of the year. Given better personnel, he and new assistant Dave Lowry have players buying into his grueling system. A between-games adjustment in the team’s overtime approach might have swung the season’s fortunes. Hakstol has managed the goaltending to where Jones is winning consistently and a tough-love approach with Grubauer might be reviving his career to Colorado Avalanche levels.
Special teams still fall under the coaching domain, and the struggles of both units keep this from being an “A” grade.
General manager Ron Francis and crew reworked the team last summer and are generating some results they’d hoped for in their debut campaign. Less-heralded late moves, such as adding free agents Sprong and Donato and waiver claim Tolvanen off something close to a scrap heap, generated 35 goals over 99 man games by the trio — a per game rate of 0.35. For context, rookie sensation Beniers scores at a 0.36 rate.
Importing Jones stabilized goaltending to where it isn’t losing games — if not yet stealing many — and adding D-man Schultz balanced the defensive pairings with left-right shots on all three. Francis has stockpiled enough draft capital to be active at the trade deadline, and he might need to be to keep this grade by season’s end.
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