Of all the things irking Kraken coach Dave Hakstol after Friday night’s debacle against Colorado, fielding a postgame question about whether his team might want to “forget about it and move on” appeared to get his blood boiling the most.
“No, you don’t just forget about it and move on,” Hakstol said, his usually calm demeanor showing signs of snapping. “You look at it, deal with it and then put it aside once that’s been done.”
As if to further his point, Hakstol promptly canceled a previously scheduled Saturday morning practice. So, instead of proceeding with their usual day-after routine, the Kraken had an extra 24 hours to ruminate over the embarrassment of falling behind 7-0 early in the third period before mustering a late flurry of goals in a 7-3 loss to the Avalanche.
And now, five weeks into their debut season, the NHL’s newest team faces a crossroads in which they can go one of two directions.
They can use the wipeout as motivation to prove they really are the relentless forechecking, defensive-minded group envisioned by general manager Ron Francis and his analytics team. Or, the Kraken can look at their 4-12-1 record, resign themselves to being not as good as advertised and spend the season playing out the role of a typical NHL expansion team.
But it’s getting late very early for this group, and with four games upcoming against top contenders — including Sunday against the Washington Capitals — there won’t be much time to sort that direction out. The players have been saying the right things as losses mount, but the execution then gets derailed.
And even the best of players knows words only mean so much. The Kraken have a unique opportunity to build a local following in a new NHL market with the city’s spotlight focused on them and a $1.15 billion overhauled arena that’s drawn rave reviews.
They know, to a man, they are frittering that opportunity away.
“We’ve seen the rink facilities, everything they’ve put out for us,” said Jordan Eberle, the team’s leading scorer. “And we want to do well for the city and we want to build a culture here that starts to win.
“So, when stuff like this happens, especially early on, it’s frustrating. But you know, it’s hard to hang your head and there’s really no time. The greatest thing about hockey is you lose a game, you get another game in two days. Or, a day and a half. So, we’ve got to find a way to get out of this. It’s that simple. It’s not going to come from anywhere else. It’s got to come from the group.”
Eberle’s comments were echoed by winger Colin Blackwell, who correctly stated that it’s on everybody in the room to up their game.
“We’ve got to look at each other, look ourselves in the mirror and (ask) what we can do better as individuals every single day to kind of build ourselves out of this mess,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell mentioned stronger forechecking to start games, which had been lacking in recent contests but actually improved against Colorado. The Kraken opened with Blackwell on a line with Yanni Gourde and Brandon Tanev, and the home side hemmed the Avalanche in their own end early.
But then a penalty and an Avalanche power-play goal changed momentum. As did an ensuing Colorado short-handed goal.
Blackwell defended the play of goalie Chris Driedger, pulled 5:33 into the second period after yielding four goals on 13 shots. Philipp Grubauer, who replaced him, wasn’t much better.
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Blackwell said when inevitable postgame goaltending questions began. “It has nothing to do with (Grubauer) or (Driedger). They’ve worked their (butt) off every single day when they come to the rink.
“We’re a team, so it’s a unit of five, six. Guys like that, that’s why it’s tough to play the position. They always get the lashing by people on the outside.”
But while it’s admirable for Blackwell to defend his goalies, as the team’s coach and GM both had after recent games, it’s also fair to point out neither netminder has “stolen” any games yet. The Kraken have turned the puck over at times and yielded odd-man-rushes, as will any team relying on explosive transitional speed at the expense of surrendering occasional counterattacks.
The Kraken have actually done a good job of limiting miscues — according to the advanced analytics — but see most of them winding up in the back of their net.
Even Hakstol couldn’t avoid calling Driedger out a bit postgame, saying he “had trouble finding his angle” on some goals before his early hook. Driedger at times looked every bit like a goalie early in training camp trying to nail down basics, which is understandable given his mere two starts in 17 games.
His prior knee injury only cost him two weeks out of five, so at least some of that rust is attributable to how Hakstol and Francis have used Driedger and possibly overused Grubauer. And so, just like their players, the coach and GM probably need to up their games as well in coming weeks.
“We have to go back and do our job and evaluate it,” Hakstol said of the latest defeat. “We have to look at it. We have to find the issues … and then we have to move forward with it.”