When a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs happens, it seems the summer flies by just a little faster.
But no matter how long the wait, for some, the wait is too long.
Good news, it’s almost over. We have signs of life - actual veterans are now participating in very informal skates at Kraken Community Iceplex. The Seahawks are back (despite what happened on Sunday). The Huskies are rolling. The Mariners are in the home stretch, and it looks like barring another collapse, a rendezvous between the launch of hockey season and the MLB postseason is going to be a thing. WHL teams are fully into the deep end of pre-season.
In the months leading up to this, the script just about played out as predicted. The Kraken weren’t hyperactive on the hot stove. They didn’t have to be. Potential impact moves to spell the corps of forwards and defensemen, such as Kailer Yamamoto, Brian Dumoulin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare were the peak of it. A year ago, we were talking about a roster in flux, questions unanswered, and hope for a new day with general manager Ron Francis taking a big swings at free agent Andre Burakovsky, nabbing Justin Schultz, and then pulling off the shrewd trade for Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Questions about the roster now have been answered and many jobs have been spoken for. Matty Beniers has a Calder Trophy in the case and at age 20, is just getting started. Philipp Grubauer delivered the “big game” flex in the playoffs that many of us were waiting to see. Jared McCann is now a 40-goal scorer. Vince Dunn has gone next level, anchoring the Kraken blueline, and just signed a four-year extension.
Yet, it still leaves opportunity to turn the page and imagine the direction with season three of NHL hockey in Seattle on the horizon.
These are ten thoughts heading into training camp, split into a two-part series (part two coming later this week):
1. THE SITUATION IN NET IS A LITTLE MORE PEACEFUL THAN LAST YEAR.
If there are any questions about the capability of Philipp Grubauer, those can be answered simply by going back to highlights, whenever convenient for you, of Game 7 in the first round at Colorado and Game 7 of the second round at Dallas.
We know. Both games ended differently - one in ecstasy that will go down forever in Seattle “where were you, when” sports lore, then the next one in sheer “close, but not close enough” pain and agony. Both starred Grubauer, who played out of his mind, lending to how valuable he was in Denver and a scary reminder of how the game at Dallas, by the second period, could have been a blowout.
However, it’s not just two signature games that carved Grubauer’s gradual rise. Seeking a fresh reset after a rocky expansion campaign, his health was an issue early last season – the reason they needed free agent Martin Jones in a “sink or swim” set of few weeks late in the fall. Grubauer dialed up his game in the stretch drive though when the Kraken were trying to do the same, going 9-3 after the start of March, and allowing two goals or less in all nine of his wins. All but two wins came with a save percentage of .910 or higher. His game rode an ascension while the Kraken historically clinched their unexpected playoff berth on a relatively low-stress timeline, doing it at home against Arizona and still a week to go on the calendar. After that, his playoff mastery happened.
Gruabuer is the guy heading into the season.
Who’s behind him will be a question answered in the oncoming weeks.
Jones is out, leaving via free agency to the Maple Leafs. Joey Daccord and Chris Driedger are left standing. Both spent time in the AHL last season, and both are qualified to spell Grubauer at the NHL level. But here comes the numbers game: there’s only one spot to go around. Unless injury occurs, it’s possible one will stay as Grubauer’s backup, and the other will go to Coachella Valley.
Daccord was dynamite in Coachella Valley last season, and a linchpin in their historic playoff run that ended in a Game 7 loss to Hershey in the Calder Cup Final. He was useful in brief call-ups, going 2-1-1 in five games, and the ink has just dried on his two-year extension. Driedger was entrenched in the backup role two years ago. Then a blown ACL in the 2022 World Championships put him on the shelf until late February, and the door opened for Daccord. Driedger got in 14 games with a 9-4-1 record in the AHL but was stashed to the role of Daccord’s backup in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He reportedly was on the trade block in June.
Such trade never happened, and Driedger now has a year left on his deal worth $3.5 million annually. He’s healthy, but nothing is certain with who takes the reins when Grubauer needs a break. The battle in net is due to write a fascinating tale.
2. CAN ANY ROOKIES BUST DOWN THE DOOR?
It’s a little different for the up-and-coming talent this year because of the optics on job security. McCann is well in place. Matty Beniers is well in place. Same goes for Andre Burakovsky, Jordan Eberle, Jaden Schwartz, Yanni Gourde, Dunn, Oliver Bjorkstrand … you get it. Just look at last year’s roster. Many major contributors are returning.
With the free agent additions listed above, though nothing is 100 percent certain, the hill is a tad steeper for those like Shane Wright and Ryker Evans. There’s a longer queue ahead of them with valuable NHL experience, and Wright – while young at age 19 – lasted only two months in the NHL before it was clear his path was better blazed at the major junior level and (via loophole) the AHL.
Whispers 12 months ago suggested Evans could make his debut by the middle of last season. But the Kraken got so hot and stayed so healthy, he wasn’t needed, and instead blossomed into one of the best blueliners in the AHL with a full year in Coachella Valley.
Tye Kartye is perhaps the likeliest out of the California desert to snag an opening night roster spot. He benefited from “right place, right time” opportunity, and when he was called up during the middle of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was impossible to take him out of the lineup. Scoring a goal in your debut while emerging as among the league’s hit leaders will certainly help. This isn’t to suggest a change of hierarchy in prospect talent, but instead where certain needs are being met in the Kraken lineup. Kartye has spotted at the wing, while Wright has a challenge to elevate his game and match the established corps of centers such as Beniers, Alex Wennberg, Gourde, and Bellemare.
Evans is a left shot defenseman, and with the presumption of full health will need to prove staying power and ability to push those underneath the Dunn-Adam Larsson pairing such as Jamie Oleksiak, Dumoulin, and Jaycob Megna for minutes. Should that challenge in camp prove too difficult, Evans will be a major addition for the Firebirds, and among first in line as a call-up if a vacancy opens.
3. JUST IMAGINE A HEALTHY ANDRE BURAKOVSKY.
With one stride across the blueline in a Feb. 7 Road game against the New York Islanders, Andre Burakovsky experienced a brutal injury that would knock him out for the rest of the season, and as of that night, knock feeling of security for a playoff berth back a couple of miles.
Burakovsky suffered a torn groin, revealed shortly after the Kraken returned home from the second round exit in Dallas. But merely getting there – one win shy of a trip to the Conference Final – was remarkable given the circumstances.
The Kraken were built last season as – and for the most part still are – a team that gets the most mileage out of the “sum of its parts.” But Burakovsky was far and away a major piston in the engine, leading the Kraken in scoring for much of the first half and landing 39 points in 49 games, before he landed on the shelf.
Francis said Burakovsky should be ready for opening night. There’s stability ahead after a tumultuous spring that Francis said included a pair of setbacks as Burakovsky sought a quick return to the lineup. Presuming that Burakovsky is all-systems-go, he’ll take aim at a career-high 22 goals and 61 points, a pace set two seasons ago in Colorado that he was on track to break last year.
Where he plays from the outset will be a bit of a mystery. He can play either wing and was found either playing the off-wing alongside Jaden Schwartz and Alex Wennberg, where his taser-like wrist shot was effective, or slotting in at the left wing along two highly skilled forwards in Beniers and Eberle.
Daniel Sprong, who was effective in controlled and limited minutes but still cranked out 21 goals, has taken his heavy right-handed shot to the Detroit Red Wings in free agency and left a vacancy on the left side of the Kraken power play. How the Kraken strategize that spot may be different. But if Burakovsky, whose shot is lethal from either circle, remains healthy and effective, significant progress could be achieved with replacing Sprong’s special teams production, and replacing drained offensive numbers.
4. OK, SO WHAT’S NEXT FOR MATTY BENIERS?
Remember when you were 19 years old, going on 20?
Yours truly remembers it spent in a college dorm, going to the beach, dabbing in an internship, and finding ways to scrape by for gas money.
Matty Beniers just spent those years nearly a millionaire, playing as a staple in an NHL lineup and winning the league’s Calder Trophy.
The guy is just built different.
Beniers has arrived. He is Mr. “1C,” 24-goal man, team plane slayer of Mario Kart, and hockey world famous. Now the question ahead is “what’s next?”
Could he hit 30 goals this season? It’s possible. But it’s not guaranteed. Last season’s fan favorite award winner played in nearly 100 games, just about doubling his previous high, he said, of around 50 in one season. He will unquestionably draw big minutes, tougher defensive assignments, and a few more “extra credit” contact shots like we saw in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while wading through the final season of his three-year entry level deal. He is also coming back experienced, seasoned, and potentially heavier (he put a vow on that goal back in May).
“I would love more weight,” said Beniers. “That would be great. I think it would be great in the corners, holding guys off my back. There’s a lot of benefits for it. I think more muscle in my legs too, to make me faster.”
Just ask Jim Montgomery in Boston how much he reminds him of Patrice Bergeron, one of Beniers’ childhood idols. The question to keep this up will be critical to the fortunes of the Kraken to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs once again. Only a headshot by Tyler Myers, that drew the ire of Puget Sound residents, was enough to knock Beniers out of the All-Star Game. He played the rest of the season, just missing two games in total.
Despite taking just one penalty all season, Beniers was discarded from the finalists pool for the Lady Byng Trophy. There are whispers of projected defensive progress in his game leading to another award threshold that Bergeron had on lock, the Selke Trophy. Similar play could draw more attention to more hardware. But an experienced, seasoned, faster, and heavier Matty Beniers, at the same continued ascension, is a scary thought. It will also be vital.
5. WINTER CLASSIC COUNTDOWN
Nine months ago, the NHL announced Seattle would be their next stage for the Winter Classic, the annual crown jewel outdoor game of the league to set the stage for Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights. T-Mobile Park will go from Mariners mode to hockey mode in a matter of several weeks, basically bridging the end of the baseball season (and let’s say for “what if” sake, the Mariners reach the World Series) that could stretch into early November.
Steve Mayer, who pulls the levers for this event as the league’s executive vice president and chief content content officer, helped break the news on Jan. 2 exclusively with 93.3 KJR and said the league took a “fair amount of trips” to Seattle. It’s opened the door for not just a hockey game that’s evolved into an early afternoon tradition on the first day of the calendar year, but for full-scale, week-long village that will take over the core and corners of the Emerald City, and “lean into” the identity of Seattle.
“It’s important for us to create an environment that a fan in Kansas City, and New Orleans, and Florida immediately look at their television and goes ‘they’re playing the game in Seattle’” said Mayer.
“The expansion draft was really a fun event for us to sort of start the creation of ‘let’s lean into Seattle.’ You’ve got a lot of celebrities that are Seattle-esque and people know them around. So hopefully we’ll be able to incorporate a lot of celebrity into the Winter Classic. I think everything from the fish market to the music that’s played – it’s known not only in Seattle but all over the country – we have to lean into that. I think also the look of Seattle, the water, and all these things that I think we’ll lean into how we design the field, create the environment that becomes a part of the game, and have some fun with it.”
So, what will that look like? Those brainstorming sessions are turning into unopened boxes of a holiday gift that’s waiting to be unwrapped. The event and center ice have served not just a grand stage for the two competing teams, but also for local hockey (Fenway Park, as recent as last year, hosted a pair of college hockey games). Could the WHL be a part of this? The league has a pair of teams around Seattle, in Kent and Everett, just 45 miles apart. Where does Pike Place fit in? Will both teams be draped in jerseys and colors bearing timeless tradition, or a groundbreaking modern touch (according to SportsLogos.net, we have a hint)? Could Sue Bird, Ken Griffey Jr., Marshawn Lynch, Macklemore, Fred Couples, Gary Payton, Felix Hernandez, and Megan Rapinoe walk out of a dugout to a sellout crowd as part of the pre-game introductions, just before Mike McCready jams a pulsating rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” on his Fender Stratocaster? Does Matty Beniers light up the sky and crowd of over 47,000 with an electrifying game winning goal?
Time will tell. The anticipation will be incredible. The day will be nothing short of memorable.