Inside the NHL

The messages came fast and furious on Twitter, email and via online story comments Sunday night: Kraken defenseman Carson Soucy needs to go.

Sure, the take was extreme, and believe me, Soucy isn’t going anyplace as one of the steadier Kraken blue liners. But beyond my shock at the venom directed Soucy’s way for his ill-advised late penalty that cost the Kraken a regulation win Sunday against Winnipeg came the realization this represented a potential turning point for his team.

It was indeed progress that local fans cared enough about the Kraken to get that worked up over Soucy’s punch to the head on Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Jets. And yeah, many were downright furious that Soucy’s selfish retaliation blow — which cost him a $2,500 fine by the NHL on Monday — likely deprived them of a valuable point after the Kraken surrendered the tying, power-play goal with 3.9 seconds to go in regulation and went on to lose in overtime. 

Looks like we’ve finally graduated from what I’ll call the “Cute Sea Otter” phase of the Kraken’s fledgling existence. Let me explain. Whenever I visit the Seattle Aquarium, usually with out-of-town guests, we check out the sea otters first. The furry creatures delight newbie onlookers by backstroking, preening and doing all kinds of innocuous things a four-foot-long, 75-pound whiskered marine mammal is capable of. 

It’s fun for a while. But the novelty wears off. Especially once you’ve seen the cutesy act a few times.

Last season, the Kraken were a bunch of sea otters

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They could collapse in the third period for weeks on end. Allow goals your average street hockey teenager might stop. Try to score on the power play with all the futility of a sea otter attempting to outbox a kangaroo. And yet, the fan base was overwhelmingly forgiving.

Hey, chill out, they’d say. What do you expect from our cute little expansion hockey team? Be happy we finally have the NHL. 

Many making such comments were about as familiar with icing, slap shots and hooking as they were with the nation’s nuclear codes. But the NHL product was a novelty, the sport’s fast pace exciting. And the team? Well, it sure was cute. Enough to earn a standing ovation from fans after one home contest they’d trailed 7-0 with 10 minutes left before scoring three meaningless goals.

That appears a thing of the past.

Soucy was one of last season’s better stories; an unheralded third-pairing defender who led all Kraken blue liners with 10 goals. He and defensive partner Will Borgen are now one of the team’s most effective pairings.

Before Soucy’s mindless gaffe Sunday, the Kraken were four seconds from having allowed only five goals their past six games. The defense has had plenty to do with making backup goalie Martin Jones look like the second coming of Georges Vezina, and Soucy is a big part of that. 

But it was quickly forgotten in the heated aftermath of Sunday’s loss, with some demanding Soucy be benched for the season or tied to the Zamboni machine and dragged across the ice.

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And for me, knowing those fans really aren’t serious — though some undoubtedly want Soucy benched at least a game — their frustration is great news for the team. 

I’d started noticing casual Seattle sports fans getting more serious about the Kraken during their five-game win streak

There’s nothing like a string of victories, many against projected playoff teams, to whet the local sports appetite. Seattle is experiencing a sports renaissance unlike anything in decades: The Mariners made the playoffs, the Seahawks lead the division, the football Huskies appear bound for a decent bowl game at worst, the Sounders won the CONCACAF Champions League title, the Storm made the WNBA semifinals, OL Reign the NWSL semifinals and the junior Seattle Thunderbirds the WHL final.

For the Kraken to fit in, they can no longer simply be cute. And they haven’t been. Their 8-5-3 pace would garner a wild-card playoff spot and is probably a few wins shy of where it deservedly should be. 

I’ll mention this now for future reference: The team’s late schedule is very favorable. It contains three games against Arizona, another vs. Chicago and one more facing Pacific Division doormat Anaheim the final two weeks. If you’re looking for a late edge to steal a playoff spot, that would be it.

So, the trick is contending into March when the tunnel-ending light should be visible for a late sprint. But the Kraken must get there first, which is why these games and others upcoming have actual meaning. 

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And fans have noticed. On Sunday I spotted the Twitter feed of a die-hard, tortured local Mariners fan named Nelson, who’d followed my blog emphatically when I covered the baseball team a decade ago and apologized a while back for being unable to get into hockey.

“Choke job. Pathetic performance,” he tweeted after Sunday’s loss. 

In a reply to the team’s official account, which attempted a light joke in relaying the final score, Nelson again tweeted: “Stop Kraken jokes and finish games. Putrid performance.” 

Guess he’s getting into hockey.

Over the weekend, I bumped into a towering neighbor, Rob, a former high-school basketball player and longtime Sonics fan. He, too, admittedly knows nothing about hockey but told me he’s more into the Kraken now and can identify names of players on all four lines from watching TV broadcasts.

Both instances, Nelson and Rob, signify increased fan engagement the team should be thrilled about. It’s a progression. The next step might be torches and pitchforks turning away from Soucy momentarily and wondering what the heck Andre Burakovsky was thinking in trying to single-handedly deke the entire Jets team right before Winnipeg’s decisive overtime goal.

But at least no one’s calling it cute. 

We all love a good novelty act. But sometimes, you want those sea otters to stop eating bugs off their own chests for a minute and just suck it up, block a shot and win the darned game.

The Kraken will win a few more before this season is done. Maybe by week’s end. But it won’t be cute. From now on, thankfully, it will be expected.