This Kraken’s second training camp getting under way Thursday in many respects holds far more compelling story lines than the first.
A year ago it was all about a novelty act. Few fans beyond NHL die-hards knew much about the Kraken players or hockey in general. Expectations were all over the place, as was the team’s infrastructure planning that included a still-incomplete Kraken Community Iceplex.
Fast-forward 12 months, the now-$90 million Iceplex is fully operational even though many of those initial players are no longer around. Those who remain plus new ones added should be better as a group, making for improved story lines around a franchise that much of the fan base and the NHL in general are still figuring out.
Key items to watch in camp are those emanating from what has become an overdone theme in mediocre hockey coverage: mulling the daily line combinations.
Too often, forward lines and defensive pairings are tweeted out robotically from practice and commented on ad nauseam. But it matters only if those line combinations amount to something, which they didn’t for a 27-49-6 Kraken squad that finished with the NHL’s third-worst record.
The debut Kraken team seemingly had more line combinations than goals. And unless the ingredients fundamentally change, you can mix a bad milkshake five dozen ways without the final product tasting better.
Things should be different with the importation of new ingredients in the form of several potentially above-average players to make present-day Kraken combinations more meaningful. The first thing to watch is where the team starts last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, Matty Beniers, and how close he is to the top line.
There’s an argument the Kraken should make Beniers the top-line center right away, his feet having already been soaked last spring with nine points in his first 10 games. The counter argument is he’s still only 19, officially a rookie and needs breaking in without the pressure of centering a top trio.
“I feel comfortable after getting a couple of games under my belt,” Beniers said during rookie camp this week. “But I think I know it’s going to be a lot tougher this year.”
So whether the team rips off the proverbial Band-Aid by immediately indoctrinating Beniers in his envisioned future role will say plenty about this season’s goals. One thought has the Kraken gearing for something close to an 80-point season — 20 more than last — that wouldn’t get them in the playoffs but instead position them for a run in 2023-24 in if they conquer growing pains this time around.
A Beniers-led future Kraken team would immensely benefit from him navigating that “tougher” road ahead in a 2022-23 season in which they are viewed as remote playoff hopefuls at best in an improving Pacific Division.
Likewise, the positioning of this year’s No. 4 overall draft pick, Shane Wright, can also hint at future contention plans. Wright won’t make a top line, but his centering any Kraken lines at age 18 would be quite a statement: Screaming that the Kraken view this as a season where, like Beniers, he works out the quirks.
Wright said this week his summer training involved ensuring he had “the speed to compete” at the NHL level.
“The speed of play and the plays being made on the ice is a level up from what I’ve been used to,” Wright said. “And that’s definitely something I’ve had to adjust to a little bit, but it’s definitely something I feel I’ve been doing good with so far.”
The Kraken can send Wright back to the Ontario Hockey League, either right away or — more likely — after a nine-game NHL trial period. He’s widely viewed as NHL-ready, but the Kraken must weigh that against their need to avoid repeating last season’s dismal on-ice performance.
One thing to watch will be whether Wright is used at his center position or a more comfortable landing spot as a winger. If predominantly at center, it could force another improving young centerman, Morgan Geekie, to right wing.
As for the immediate future, there’s the decision on whether to name a team captain. There are several candidates — Yanni Gourde, Jordan Eberle and Adam Larsson among them — but any delay could signal the team plans for Beniers, Wright or another young leader to emerge the next season or two and would rather hold off.
Naming a captain in camp conversely could signal the team plans to stay in contention all season and wants a designated leader for the immediate future — as opposed to focusing on a distant future playoff run.
Rounding out the top two lines and those after isn’t quite as critical. The Kraken, having added Oliver Bjorkstrand via trade and Andre Burakovsky through free agency, now have numerous wingers they can shift up and down lines on both sides of the ice.
They could pair an experienced Eberle on a top line with Beniers, or drop Eberle down a spot or two without it being a reflection on his play. Likewise, oft-injured wing Jaden Schwartz is projected as a top-liner by some but could tumble a couple of trios owing to the added talent.
Of greater importance is upgrading the power play. Beyond newcomers Bjorkstrand and Burakovsky, holdovers Jared McCann, Gourde, Alex Wennberg, Eberle and Schwartz showed power-play proficiency and will have to be sorted through with some combination of defensemen Vince Dunn and newcomer Justin Schultz.
The progress in camp by long-term injury returnees Schwartz and Brandon Tanev bears watching; having both healthy would equate to free-agent additions on two fronts.
A healthy Schwartz and Tanev, coupled with re-signing Ryan Donato, also makes it nearly impossible for additional forward newcomers to crack the lineup without a trade. That includes Daniel Sprong, who finished the season with the Kraken after a March trade from Washington but only just re-signed.
Things are less crowded among defensive pairings, though the top-five defenders seem set among Larsson, Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Schultz and Carson Soucy. After that, beyond Will Borgen, there could be room for Michal Kempny, Cale Fleury or even a professional newcomer such as Ryker Evans with a dazzling show in camp.
Finally, what’s going on in the Iceplex stands as camp unfolds could be telling. Are they only half full? Will most of the city’s media outlets — not counting those partnered with the team — come out beyond the first day? Will the team routinely conduct interactions between players and fans?
After all, story lines matter only if somebody pays attention to them. To get more people to care about the Kraken, work on bettering last season’s on-and-off-ice struggles must begin now.