Inside the NHL
VANCOUVER, B.C. — For better or worse, with much of it being the latter, the Kraken are about to finish making memories from their debut NHL season.
Yes, they’ve produced mostly dismal results expected from a typical expansion squad. No, they were not expected to. It has nothing to do with unrealistic expectations after the Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final their expansion season. It has everything to do with the Kraken themselves expecting closer to a .500 season given the advantageous rules they had in picking players compared with expansion teams of yesteryear.
Anyhow, the first season is nearly over, and it should not surprise that many of the on-ice highlights have come the past six weeks, when they finally began playing at the .500 pace initially expected.
Beniers lives up to the hype
And within that stretch, rookie forward Matty Beniers notching points in his first five NHL games rates as the most defining individual achievement. Beniers is supposed to be a huge part of that future, and his five points in five games weren’t exactly collected the easy way with secondary assists.
No, three of the points came off goals scored in very different ways: One off a rebound, another off an instinctive redirection of a shot from the point and finally a third off a pinpoint wrist shot that picked the corner against one of the league’s better netminders in Marc-Andre Fleury.
Beniers technically fell a game shy of the NHL record for points in consecutive games by a first-year player on an expansion team. In reality, there was nothing “first year” or “expansion” about the two record holders in front of him or the team they played for.
Back in 1979-80, the major professional World Hockey Association — packed with former NHL All-Stars — ceased operation after seven years of being a thorn in the NHL’s side. It was all about money; the WHA throwing it around the way the Kraken players sometimes turn the puck over and the NHL clinging to it in a death grip. There was nothing minor league about the WHA. It’s just where good players that wanted to be paid and didn’t mind being blacklisted by the NHL wound up going.
So when the WHA ran out of money, its four best franchises — Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg — joined the NHL. There was an expansion draft held to fortify the four teams’ rosters, but many of the same players already with those franchises stayed on in making the NHL jump.
In Edmonton’s case, Wayne Gretzky had played with both the Oilers and the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA the season before the merger. His winger, a guy named Brett Callighen, had played three seasons with the Oilers.
So when they recorded points in their first six games of the 1979-80 season, they set the standard for first-year NHL players on expansion teams that Beniers just nearly eclipsed.
But Gretzky’s and Callighen’s “first” NHL season was nothing like a 19-year-old Beniers leaping to the NHL straight out of the University of Michigan. And his points streak came with the Kraken, a team that, favorable rules notwithstanding, was indeed built in traditional expansion team style with zero player holdovers from previous seasons.
McCann exceeds expectations
Next on the individual achievement list would be Jared McCann scoring 26 goals and earning a five-year, $25 million contract extension.
Entering the season, there were all kinds of thoughts about players who might top the 20-goal mark. McCann was never foremost in those, and yet here he is leading the team. He had 21 of those goals by Feb. 21, so the pace has slowed. But it doesn’t take away from what he’s done.
An impressive stretch
As for excellent team stretches, it’s tough to beat what the Kraken did in defeating the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes in consecutive November contests and then beating the Florida Panthers on the road a few nights later.
Back then, the Kraken were still clinging to hope of getting back into the playoff discussion. So those games mattered more than anything done once the postseason was rendered an impossible dream.
On individual “plays of the year” a handful come to mind. Who can forget Brandon Tanev racing the length of the ice with Rasmus Dahlen draped all over him to score a short-handed goal in Buffalo?
Tanev had also scored a pretty goal in Columbus during the season’s opening week, blowing past a defender and putting several dekes on the goalie before scoring. He was shaping up to be a Kraken success story, going from bottom-six forward to most popular player in a two-month span before a knee injury ended his campaign.
The next most outstanding play was probably Alex Wennberg faking a shot, racing around defender Jake McCabe and deking out the goalie in Chicago three weeks ago for an eventual game-winning goal.
Also up there was Daniel Sprong’s effort in Los Angeles a month back, picking up a puck in the neutral zone and outracing flat-footed defenders down the right side to score.
For the defensive play of the season, Adam Larsson has been solid all the way through and saved a couple of pucks from crossing the goal line. But a leg save in February off Johnny Gaudreau firing toward what appeared to be an open net in Calgary rates as his best.
Most memorable victory?
As far as top victories, there was the aforementioned win over Florida in November and again in Seattle in February when the Panthers had established themselves as a serious Stanley Cup threat. There was also the team’s first shutout in a 3-0 victory at the New York Islanders in February. And last week’s 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche, who, despite missing several top players, are still a perennial threat on any night.
All told, I’d go with a 6-1 victory over the Kings in Los Angeles a month ago, which was just an all-around team effort with actual execution in all aspects of the game — especially goal-scoring.
The ability of the Kraken to beat good teams provides some optimism. So does the arrival of Beniers as a much-needed offensive reinforcement.
The Kraken just need to get started on their season highlights a whole lot quicker next October.