Head coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Francis sat down with the media just past 1:00pm PT on Tuesday in a room filled to capacity at Kraken Community Iceplex, for the final time before the summer prelude to the 2022-23 season, prepared to deliver answers on events that enwrapped the course of a historic expansion season.
That season of history bore fruit of memories many will take away a lifetime. Through trials, tribulations, wins, losses, euphoria and heartache of what the Metropolitans experienced decades before what the Totems, Breakers, Americans, Thunderbirds, and Silvertips experienced the same to present day, those sitting in many of those seats were rewarded for their patience with a National Hockey League team, in the Puget Sound, to finally call their own.
On ice, the final tally was a record of 27-49-6, maneuvering through a year which landed, the numbers suggest, a usual result of an expansion franchise fresh out of the box rather than the rare “lightning in a bottle” record season captured by Vegas four years ago. The Kraken were a win short of matching the output of the Columbus Blue Jackets (2000-01) and Nashville Predators (1998-99), tied for fifth most by any start-up since the boom of the “expansion six” in 1967-68 (their 27 wins match the Blues, North Stars, and Penguins – though each played a 74-game season).
They finished with more wins in an expansion season than the Ducks (25), Wild (25), Flames (25), Canucks (24), Lightning (23), Sharks (17), Islanders (12) and – gulp – the 1974-75 Capitals (8).
So, they’re off and running, ahead of several teams who went through serious lump-taking before capturing the next step in playoff contention and for several teams listed above, Stanley Cups.
Francis said one objective remains in mind, for the future.
“Every year you want to make the playoffs, that’s your goal,” said Francis. “Our goal is to get better each and every year.”
“It’s not an easy league, but we want to add the pieces we feel will give us a chance to contend for the playoffs next year.”
The news that goaltending coach Andrew Allen’s contract would not be renewed came after Francis said discussions were conducted with Hakstol, and a decision ultimately coming down to the struggles of the early portion of the season. Philipp Grubauer held an .880 save percentage and Chris Driedger was at .896 through the middle of January.
Francis said numerous criteria will go into searching for a replacement.
“It’s a unique position, it’s tough,” said Francis. “Some of it is dealing with mental aspect, confidence, helping guys feel good, other things – little things goaltenders doing or not doing to affect this overall play or position, knowing when to push them, knowing when look for rest.”
Grubauer, a big-splash free agent signing last summer, will look to rebound from a 18-31-5 season where he recorded the lowest save percentage (.889) of his 10-year career but was fresh off a Vezina Trophy finalist campaign with the Colorado Avalanche in 2020-21, going 30-9-1 with a 1.95 goals-against-average, .922 save percentage, and career high seven shutouts.
Grubauer told 933kjr.com he was comfortable with a workload of 55 games this season, most in his NHL career.
“I loved it,” said Grubauer. “Every player wants to play. Obviously, there are times we needed to change it up and Chris did a phenomenal job. One goalie can’t play 72 games and then you go into playoffs. So, you need that happy balance in between playing a lot, but not so much where it makes a goalie tired.”
Driedger, who came over from the Florida Panthers and additionally dealt with injury issues early this season, found a rhythm once healthy and recorded a 3-0 record with a .921 save percentage in April, along with a home ice curtain-dropping shutout win over the San Jose Sharks on Apr. 29 in an emotional home finale at Climate Pledge Arena.
Grubauer (Germany) confirmed he will compete in the World Championships. Driedger will join Team Canada.
With questions of “who’s next” to drop the puck in a crisp, navy-blue Kraken jersey this October come with answers that are still being developed in the 2022-23 dark room.
The Kraken, while already assured of a retained core of players under contract for two years or longer including Matty Beniers, Jared McCann (who signed a five-year extension), Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Brandon Tanev, Jaden Schwartz, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, Driedger and Grubauer, still have more cap space available (up to $20 million coming off the books) to potentially pursue free agent upgrades or re-sign players projected into future plans.
The Kraken offense finished tied 29th in the NHL with 2.6 goals per game and on the power play at 14.6 percent. Francis said he would like to add help among the forward group and defensive corps to supplement offensive production, where the waiting period now begins to see what pending free agents actually hit the open market this summer, 9am PT on July 13.
The Kraken can also use a loaded cabinet of draft picks – 11 in the top two rounds over the next three years – to orchestrate a trade for upgrades. It would help a team that, Francis illustrated, experienced episodes in defeat despite outshooting the opposition in games (the Kraken went 16-19-3 in that situation).
“Some things remain to be seen,” said Francis. “But certainly, if we can add a piece on the back end who can add more offensive ability, we’re doing to look to do that. Up front – a piece that can play the top six who can produce offense, and maybe another piece in the top nine and look to make up our bottom six as well.”
Ryan Donato, who scored a career-high 16 goals but said he hasn’t held any conversations with the Kraken yet about next season, is one of six pending restricted free agents while Victor Rask, Riley Sheahan, and Derrick Pouliot are due to hit the open market as unrestricted free agents.
MATTY BENIERS: RACING OUT OF THE STARTING BLOCKS
For a player at 19 years of age and two months ago was sitting in a classroom at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, nine points in ten games for rookie sensation and center Matty Beniers isn’t a bad start.
Signed immediately to his three-year entry level deal after his Michigan Wolverines were eliminated in the Frozen Four, Beniers wasted no time establishing a strong pace out of the gate, getting an assist in the first period of his NHL debut and scoring his first career NHL goal in his home debut, a 3-2 shootout win over New Jersey on Apr. 16.
The future is bright, for a player already competing at a level beyond his years.
“For me it’s the poise in how he handles every situation,” said Hakstol. “On the ice, he’s very cerebral in understanding the game. Has good defensive DNA, supports his defenseman as a center coming out of the zone, and has instincts going up ice.”
“Most impressive though, it’s how he’s handled the last 24 days. Different stresses and pressures – whether off ice and on ice – he’s handled those things very well. Very impressive – really important place to start.”
Hakstol said there are more challenges to come, and Beniers, who joked he can enjoy clam chowder in Seattle just like his days of growing up in Boston, echoed those challenges with handling mature competition with fresh legs in October, versus April.
“I need to definitely get bigger and stronger,” said Beniers. “I’ve always been a skinnier guy - more emphasis now that I’m getting older - and it’ll be easier to do so. Last ten games have been good, but (it was the) end of the season, guys had played 70-something games. It was easier coming in that time than mid-season, so I’m expecting a little more intensity next season.”
“But it was good to get my toes wet, see what kind of game it is, see how fast it is, the physicality, and get confidence I can play here.”
Beniers, who primarily played between wingers Donato and Jordan Eberle, will enter the second year of his three-year deal next season. His parents, Bob and Christine, who were in the seats for Matty’s first career NHL goal, said a trip for fishing this summer is on the schedule.
“Our son Bobby bought us some trips (to Seattle) for Christmas,” said Christine to 933kjr.com. “He promised Bob and Matty a trip out to Seattle to do some fishing.”
Appropriate, for Seattle’s latest growing sports catch, looking for more rounds of a post-game victory salmon toss.
TO WEAR THE C: WHO’S NEXT?
The departure of captain Mark Giordano to the Toronto Maple Leafs left an obvious void in the role of captaincy. Alternates Yanni Gourde, Adam Larsson, Jaden Schwartz, and Jordan Eberle continued in their current roles for the duration of the season, but no replacement was immediately named.
Hakstol said there is no timetable to fill the role of the second captain in Kraken history, but the quartet listed above would be “front of the pack” for consideration with the residue of Giordano’s leadership left in the current dressing room.
Ensuring no name would be left out of consideration, Hakstol still offered the merits of defenseman Adam Larsson’s influence – strong and steady rather than hyperactive – in developing leadership.
“As we went through difficult stretches through the year, he’s a rock,” said Hakstol. “He shows up, he does his job. He works. But I believe he grew a little bit more as we came down the stretch, in terms of what he brought with energy and confidence.”
“Those are some little things you look for in guys around the room.”
Gourde told 933kjr.com he’ll watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs – not just to view as a fan or former teammates on the Tampa Bay Lightning, but for intel to install next season in his new hockey home.
“How do we get there next year?” asked Gourde, hypothetically.
“I’ll be watching for different stuff – how do you create offense in the playoffs? Even though I know the answer, because I’ve been there, it’s something I look at because I want to get to the next level. I want this team to be working for a playoff spot next year. That’s where my head’s at.”
THE COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS: COMING TO SEATTLE?
General manager Ron Francis joked he can perhaps finally rest.
With the completion of an expansion season, a new practice facility, renovated arena, preparations for the incoming draft, and evaluation of free agency options, another summer task involves building the Coachella Valley Firebirds, starting play in 2022-23.
Francis said the Firebirds, who will play in the new 10,000-seat multi-purpose Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, Calif., are facing a start to their expansion season under the watchful eye of the Puget Sound with several home games slated to be played in Seattle, before the team’s permanent American Hockey League home venue’s construction is complete in December and adjacent practice facility a month before that.
“We may start most likely out of Seattle and the first month and a half, play games for people here to see,” said Francis, who said discussions are still being finalized for temporary home ice, but pinpointed Climate Pledge Arena as a likely base.
That also comes with rounding out a robust staff that will service the Kraken top development affiliate, where Francis plans to on hiring a coaching staff, strength and training staff, equipment staff, video coordinator and then growing out the pool of prospects in the pipeline, limited this season to a shared affiliate with the Florida Panthers in Charlotte.
“Certainly, (there are) some challenges with logistics, getting players in here with accommodations, getting them down there with accommodations, and filling out the roster,” said Francis.
Downtime for Francis won’t come too far away from the mission ahead for season two.
“There are some guys who understand this is a big summer for them and they need to put time in the gym and on the ice to give themselves a chance to make the lineup on a regular basis next year,” said Francis.