About a year ago the Seattle Kraken pledged to be a better team: from goaltending, to speed, to scoring in waves, and ambition.
Check every box on that list, and you’re going places. The Kraken followed everything to script through free agency and an Oliver Bjorkstrand trade last summer to supplement a roster that needed touch ups. In a best-case scenario, as they surged like a rocket from take-off to a 19-win and 40-point improvement – setting new benchmarks in NHL history for an expansion team in their second season.
They didn’t stop there, belting the Colorado Avalanche into the summer and becoming the first team in Stanley Cup Playoff history to eliminate a defending champion in their first ever playoff series.
So, after a second round loss to Dallas, where do we go from here? Was there a message from the coaching staff and management to the players to feel good about the season, but feel disappointed that it finished nine wins shy of the Stanley Cup?
“We didn’t have to say that,” said Kraken general manager Ron Francis. “Our players were saying that to us.”
“That should be our goal every year – try to get in (the playoffs) and then, ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup.”
For a team that is building gradually, not with fly-by-night shortcuts, you could say the first set of prime years have just about arrived. There is no more waiting to get into the playoffs, no more close calls, no more teasing.
That next major benchmark is here with Stanley Cup Playoff fever arriving in Seattle, and all of a sudden – a second year NHL franchise has a roster chock full of playoff experience, “a lot of the core pieces” as Francis explained.
“They just come and work hard every night, they give you everything they have,” said Francis. “In game seven (at Dallas), they gave us everything they had, and it just wasn't enough. But that's the kind of locker room and culture that's being established with for this organization. And that's what we expect. Moving forward.”
Philipp Grubauer put it bluntly with how fast he wants this offseason to go.
“I would love to start tomorrow with training camp, to be honest,” Grubauer said to 93.3 KJR-FM.
We’ll start there with goaltending. Even though scoring is up in the NHL – the most the playoffs have seen since a magical 1992-93 season when Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull were in their prime – goaltending still matters.
Grubauer got a taste of what kind of success in net is tethered to overall results. He was 13-9-3 over the last two months. He was arguably the best player in a Kraken jersey when they beat Colorado in seven games. His game went from great to mind-blowing in game sevens, combining for a .951 save percentage against Colorado and Dallas.
Credit goaltending coach Steve Briere, hired over a year ago, for the turnaround.
“I thought he communicated really well, from day one,” said Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol, who credited goaltending as an area of strength. “That’s the first part, being able to communicate what a goaltender needs. And I thought he did that very well with each of the individuals – not just the two guys here but all of the guys within our system.
“Small details can make a huge difference in a game of inches,” said Grubauer. “He’s been incredible all year for us, and one reason why we’ve gotten back to playing the way we can play. Huge addition.”
Grubauer will potentially have Chris Driedger ready to back him up with Martin Jones set to re-enter free agency at age 33. Joey Daccord is also a viable backup option with a spectacular playoff run in the AHL but needs work on a new contract ready to expire.
But many question marks are becoming affirmative answers with the immediate future of Kraken goaltending.
The Kraken also have a core in place of Andre Burakovsky (expected to be fully healthy by training camp), 40-goal scorer Jared McCann, Jaden Schwartz, Jordan Eberle, sparkplug center Yanni Gourde, rugged shutdown defenseman Adam Larsson, and very importantly, Calder Trophy favorite Matty Beniers.
That only begins to scratch the surface. Notably absent though in that list is defenseman Vince Dunn, who is likely due for a pay raise after a career year with 14 goals and 64 points in 81 games. He will enter restricted free agency, demanding more than a current deal worth four million annually. His initial words though, suggested there's no other place he'd want to play in, but Seattle.
“For myself, I’m happy where I am right now and I want to be a part of this organization for many years to come,” said Dunn. “So, whatever happens in the future, it’s just got to work itself out. But I’m really excited for what’s ahead.”
“I’m all in, I love this organization, ever since I stepped foot in here. It’s been a new chapter in my career.”
The future isn’t as daunting as compared to, say, if Dunn were an unrestricted free agent. There is a mutual interest for Dunn to be in Seattle long term, and the Kraken can match any offer sheet, if any other team in the league is daring to “go there.”
What’s remaining to address is an area of potential holes to be filled, either by free agency – where the marquee names are thin this summer – or the pipeline. The Kraken have $18 million coming off the books this summer, with already a significant chunk due for Dunn, and then questions of “how much” and “to who” for free agents Daniel Sprong (who buried 21 goals), Morgan Geekie, Ryan Donato, Will Borgen, Carson Soucy, and Cale Fleury, Joonas Donskoi, and John Hayden. Ryker Evans is just about, if not fully, NHL ready. Shane Wright still realistically has a chance to make the roster at age 19. Assuming there’s no regression in his game, the only thing that might be in the way of Tye Kartye making the team next year is abduction by aliens.
“I think you, like us, were impressed with the performance by Tye Kartye at the end of the year too, so that’s an exciting, possible piece for us moving forward,” said Francis as he scanned the room full of media members.
A round-up of players are also looking for a potential slice of the pie in the upcoming final year of their deals: Jordan Eberle, Alex Wennberg, Eeli Tolvanen, Justin Schultz, Jaycob Megna, Driedger, and Beniers (who will need a hefty boost with his entry level expiring after next season).
Aside from those question marks, there are answers with a Kraken AHL team on a deep playoff run, thriving on playoff experience, and a cupboard of draft picks that Francis refused to raid during a tempting trade deadline period. This year’s NHL Draft will be extremely deep, and by a sample of consensus, typical first round talent that will have to wait to be picked until the second round.
This summer, the Kraken will pick four times in the first two rounds.
More often than not, there’s a rule that involves playoff runs and a deep pocket of prospects or draft picks – you can’t have it both ways.
This year, the Kraken bucked the trend. Not just in achievement but in sustainability – they are well on their way.