Things finished better than they started for the Kraken this season, which bodes well toward avoiding a repeat in coming campaigns.
There will always be those who believe the Kraken should be judged like a typical NHL expansion team, regardless of favorable rules they had picking their squad compared with previous first-year franchises. Others feel it’s possible to place reasonable Kraken expectations somewhere between basement dwellers and the Stanley Cup finalist Vegas Golden Knights of four years ago.
For those in that latter camp, assessing accountability for what’s happened is important. Even if you believe the Kraken were predestined to struggle, figuring out why they did is part of preventing it from happening again. And judging whether those tasked with making changes are capable.
It’s a positive sign that the front office is already vowing summer improvements, rather than pretending this season’s 30th overall result was part of some master plan.
There’s nothing wrong with building a solid future contender over time, but left unchecked, such building can drift on aimlessly without end. Preserving salary-cap space for short- and long-term aims was reasonable, but the trick was doing it while keeping the present-day squad relevant.
After all, the Kraken weren’t just some preexisting NHL team: They were newcomers with plenty of sports competition in a market that hadn’t experienced major professional hockey in a century. They needed to stand out.
Instead, they played like a draft-lottery team realistically eliminated from playoff contention months ago. Rather than taking the city’s sports scene by storm, empty seats at Climate Pledge Arena became increasingly prevalent.
Sure, there were some positives. The Kraken were a hardworking bunch that knocked off premier NHL teams on given nights. They saw the emergence of future cornerstone Jared McCann and a strong debut by Matty Beniers. Also, team leaders emerged in Yanni Gourde, Jordan Eberle and Brandon Tanev. And some connection was formed between the team and fans inside the arena.
But the Kraken were also prone to extended losing streaks, with serious offensive woes and goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger struggling to get untracked. They lacked local buzz even amid disappointing football seasons for the Seahawks and Huskies, another Mariners miss and an early Sounders playoff exit.
The Kraken’s mere existence gained them a moderate but devoted following of fans, which is fairly common for U.S.-based NHL teams. But settling for being just another niche NHL squad in Anywhere, USA, ensconced at No. 3 or No. 4 in local popularity, was never the Kraken’s aim.
For that to change and the fan base to broaden, the on-ice product must improve — fast.
With Sunday’s season finale approaching, here are some grades:
No question slow starts by Grubauer and — to a lesser extent — Driedger helped doom the Kraken early. Extra goals allowed proved too much to overcome for a team that doesn’t score enough.
Nonetheless, both goalies since January provided better chances to win. Even then, the Kraken often couldn’t score enough to capitalize. The advanced goalie statistics still weren’t great, but they ignored how odd-man rushes against and the severity of some Kraken turnovers left the netminders vulnerable. Driedger needs to be better with rebounds. And Grubauer must “steal” more games by stopping pucks beyond what’s expected.
The team also must use the goalies more evenly, as they did in the final six weeks. Otherwise, Driedger might have to be moved this summer. Grade: C
McCann’s emergence was promising, and Beniers provided a needed injection. Ryan Donato may have found a home. But scoring two goals a game won’t cut it, and the Kraken had two or fewer in half their contests.
This isn’t a “D” grade because of two-way defensive skills and long-term injuries to Tanev and Jaden Schwartz. But too many players looked ill-suited to their roles. Joonas Donskoi fell off the map. Alex Wennberg dominated some nights, was invisible others. When trade extras Daniel Sprong and Victor Rask felt akin to adding Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, you know help is needed.
For the Kraken to be relevant beyond Thanksgiving, general manager Ron Francis must bring in guys who can finish. Grade: C-minus
Yeah, the group was prone to some bad giveaways. But this was easily the team’s strongest area. Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson were every bit as tough and durable as advertised. Carson Soucy played big minutes and set a career high for goals. Vince Dunn took on responsibilities with the departure of Mark Giordano and seemed to thrive.
The bottom pairings were a mixed bag. The Kraken must decide whether Haydn Fleury fits and use Will Borgen more from the outset. They could also use an offensively inclined right-handed shot.
You can see why the team is anticipating the pending arrival of second-round draft pick Ryker Evans, as they need to get quicker with puck moving and zone exits. Grade: B
With a bad offense, the power play usually follows. Again, a scoring “finisher” is needed. A right-handed “quarterback” on defense would help.
Beyond that, the Kraken need to go to the net more consistently. And could stand to shoot the puck more rather than overpassing.
The penalty killing had its moments, particularly in March when scoring a bunch of short-handed goals after more aggressively challenging the puck-carrier. Karson Kuhlman was a good pickup. Much of Donskoi’s limited value came here. But the unit appeared overmatched by talented offensive teams. Grade: D
It took too long to get this team going. The Kraken were slightly under .500 the final seven weeks and could have been better had they executed more during games in which they outplayed opponents. Do that all season, they’d have stayed relevant. But 60-minute efforts weren’t always there, and that’s on Dave Hakstol and assistants.
The team’s reliance on a relentlessly aggressive style proved unsustainable and likely contributed to costly injuries. Goaltending usage was questionably one-sided for Grubauer before and long after Driedger’s knee issues.
The grade isn’t worse because it’s unclear whether coaches had much to work with beyond the defensive core. Then again, if this was nearly a .500 team after the trade deadline, why not before? Hakstol said last month in Arizona he’d expected the Kraken to contend for a playoff spot, as did numerous projection systems and pundits.
Still, guys needed to adapt to one another. We’ll have a better understanding next winter of whether Hakstol and staff can do more with a more typical preseason and roster upgrades. On the positive front, they kept players motivated enough to not mail it in right before and since the trade deadline. That bodes well. Grade: C
Sure, GM Francis and staff stockpiled salary-cap space. But they sacrificed a critical first season doing it, to the chagrin of season-ticket holders paying top dollar and general disinterest from casual sports fans.
Francis was criticized for a risk-averse expansion draft that generated few side deals. Instead of securing draft capital through such deals, Francis had to get some by dumping a bunch of players at the trade deadline once the team bottomed out.
Even drafting 38-year-old Mark Giordano as the team’s first captain was bizarre, given it was immediately obvious he’d likely be traded. For a team in a new market seeking fans, anointing a captain you likely plan to trade — even if netting a second-round pick — is curious brand building.
The on-ice product, while trying hard, still finished 30th of 32 teams. The plan to stay close in a relatively weak Pacific Division, whether devised primarily by analytics, scouting or likely a mixture, clearly didn’t work.
The good news? Francis kept enough cap space to be able to make some major improvements this summer via trades or free agency. Grade: D