This weekend’s games in Everett and Kent are going to tell us more about what direction the Kraken is headed in.
Thursday morning’s practice was a clear indicator. The first group, consisting of Connor Carrick, Gustav Olofsson, Kole Lind, newcomer Max McCormick and a few others, is most likely to begin the season in the AHL (American Hockey League), or at least not as regular NHL starters.
Head coach Dave Hakstol said that group and the second session’s group — which included the veteran players — will play this weekend.
As the final games of camp commence, the Kraken has decisions to make, and while the coaching staff will use all the resources they have in their four-games-in-five-days stretch, some of those decisions are already happening.
“Working to get guys into specific roles, essentially guys as a D-pair or a line that might play during the regular season,” Hakstol said. “We got a little bit of it (in Calgary). All other things being equal with health and things like that, we’ll do a little bit more of that. Just like everything else, you’re trying to work toward that regular season.”
One of those decisions is keeping Jared McCann on the top line. In the absence of Alexander Wennberg, whose fiancee just had their baby, McCann has seized that spot and performed well enough that he’ll likely stay in that role between Jordan Eberle and Jade Schwartz.
Wennberg returned to practice Thursday and played between Calle Jarnkrok and Marcus Johansson. The expectation was for Wennberg to get a crack in the middle of the top unit, but, those lines at the least seem set.
Wennberg doesn’t have to play catch up too long, playing between the linemates he began camp with.
“We go really well together,” Wennberg said. “We’ve been really hitting it off right now and with practice to get chemistry going, we’ll finally get a game to try it out. I feel like we can really do something good.”
The other line that’s stuck together is Morgan Geekie, Joonas Donskoi and Ryan Donato.
Donskoi has been a standout in camp, and Donato has brought some flare with a goal in the first game, while Geekie has been arguably the breakout player of camp. The trio didn’t have the best game Wednesday, with Donskoi’s expected goals per 60 the lowest on the team, but they had the best showing in the preseason opener.
Colin Blackwell projected for a middle six role before a lower body injury has kept him out the entirety of camp. He wasn’t on the ice again Thursday — just he and Nathan Bastian, who had a personal day, were missing — so time is running out to find a role for the start of the season.
Brandon Tanev and Riley Sheahan have been skating with Bastian, but Mason Appleton is fighting for one of those spots as well, and that trio worked together Thursday. Tanev didn’t play Wednesday, but Sheahan and Appleton worked well together in that contest.
Appleton has some flexibility at the center or on the wing, but he’s primarily been on the right wing through camp and the games. He was a standout Wednesday in Calgary, playing on a back-to-back, and had one of the higher expected goal rates of anyone on the ice.
While Blackwell remains out and Yanni Gourde — who, still in red, skated with Carsen Twarynski and Alexander True on Thursday — works his way back, it might be getting close to a safe bet those lines are going to be what we get when the games count.
Across most of the forwards, the forecheck has been uniformly excellent in two of the three exhibition contests. Wednesday in Calgary was the best example, when Eberle fished a puck away from the Flames and turned it into a goal with a pass to Schwartz.
It was a nice sign after the forecheck didn’t get much of a chance with a weak possession game in Edmonton the night before.
“It’s a five-man project, we’ve had some success,” Hakstol said. “I feel like we’ve gotten away from it, two nights ago in Edmonton, we didn’t even have the puck enough, we didn’t keep the puck enough, we gave it back so we didn’t even have a chance to forecheck.”
The game in Calgary was a better indication of the style the Kraken wants to play. With three games left, it’s crunchtime to implement those systems they’ve had just a short camp to get in place.
There are still battles to be had; at this point, most of those come on the third defensive pairing, though Bastian and Sheahan still could be he forwards to watch compete for the fourth line.
By the end of this weekend’s contests, before the finale in Vancouver, we might have a sense of what the inaugural Kraken lineup will actually be.