Although I had optimism about the Seattle Kraken’s second season heading into the 2022-23 NHL campaign, seeing them hold an automatic playoff spot through the middle of November is a surprise nonetheless.
With a solid, if unspectacular, record of 8-5-3, the Kraken rank third in the Pacific Division. They lag behind the Los Angeles Kings by four points but own three games in hand on their divisional rivals. There remain 60-odd games on the schedule, but there is no denying that the Kraken are chugging along at a more efficient rate than in the city’s underwhelming return to the NHL fraternity.
From getting respectable goaltending from an unlikely source to fresh faces injecting some sorely-needed dynamism into their attack, here are three factors behind the Kraken’s strong start to the 2022-23 season.
Martin Jones Surprisingly Effective as Goaltending Stopgap
More than anything else, the Kraken’s abhorrent goaltending was their downfall last season, with their team save percentage (SV%) of .880 ranking last in the entire league. It’s one thing for their netminders to play poorly, but it’s another when they’re being paid in line with the league’s best at the position.
Despite his contract carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $5.9 million (ninth among goalies), Philipp Grubauer has been far from the quality expected of someone earning his hefty salary. Over 59 games with the Kraken, the German owns a .888 SV% which ranks 71st out of 77 goalies with at least ten games played over the past two seasons. It’s that suboptimal return on investment that makes the play of Martin Jones– signed as a free agent this summer – simultaneously frustrating and refreshing.
The 32-year-old netminder, a veteran of over 400 NHL games, was thrust into starting duty after Grubauer suffered an injury earlier this season, and despite his wobbly history (he’s a career .907 SV%), he’s been exactly what the Kraken have needed to stabilize their situation in the crease.
Through 13 games, Jones owns a 7-4-2 record and has posted a .909 SV%, and saved 6.1 goals above expected (GSAx), according to MoneyPuck, the eighth-highest total this season. As a result, the Kraken currently boast the 20th-ranked team SV% (.897), which is no mean feat after Grubauer started the campaign with a paltry mark of .860 in four games before being sidelined. Jones posted one season of .900 or higher from 2018-2022, so expecting him to maintain his current run of form is a risky gamble. He’s performing well for now, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Kraken Defensive Structure Continues to Be a Strength
If there was one thing the Kraken could hang their hat on during an otherwise miserable inaugural season, it was their stout team defense. At 5v5, they ranked fourth in shots, scoring chances, and expected goals against per-60-minutes, something you may not have believed if you evaluated their defense solely through their historically bad goaltending. They succeeded in preventing opponents from accumulating a high volume of shots as well as rarely conceding quality looks in the process. Through the first month of the 2022-23 season, that trend looks to have carried over from year one, for the most part.
The Kraken once again rank fourth in the rate of 5v5 shots allowed but are conceding a slightly higher rate of expected goals (eighth) and significantly more scoring chances (16th). They do rank sixth in high-danger chances allowed, so while they’ve sprung a leak more often this season, they’ve avoided giving up truly dangerous chances (from in the slot, for example).
It’s this defensive foundation that underlines the Kraken’s ability to win the overall possession battles on a nightly basis. They own a 52.9% share of shots taken at 5v5 (seventh in the NHL), a 51.6% cut of expected goals (12th), and just over half of high-danger chances (17th). They do sport only a 48% ratio of scoring chances, but even that is close enough to break even that it’s not too problematic.
The Kraken have forged an identity of being a defensively responsible outfit which, when combined with competent goaltending, produces tangible results by way of a positive goal differential. Mix in one final ingredient – a thriving attack – and all of a sudden, the Kraken look to be a sneaky playoff hopeful.
Kraken’s Offseason Additions Leading the Way on Offence
There is perhaps no greater indicator of the peril the Kraken attack found itself in last season than the fact that Jared McCann led the team in scoring with 50 points, the lowest team-leading tally in the league. General manager Ron Francis went shopping this summer, bringing in the likes of Andre Burakovsky (free agency), Oliver Bjorkstrand (trade), and Matty Beniers (2021 second-overall pick) to go with their intriguing pre-existing pieces such as Jared Schwartz and Jordan Eberle.
The new guard’s early results have partially vindicated Francis for his puzzling roster management decisions beginning with the expansion draft. Burakovsky leads the team in assists (10) and points (14), Beniers is tied for the team lead in goals (five), and Bjorkstrand has driven play in line with his two-way brilliance with the Columbus Blue Jackets (56.1% of shots; 52.8% of expected goals). That’s not to mention improved scoring numbers from founding members such as Eberle and Schwartz, all of whom have contributed to the Kraken’s 15th-ranked offense.
After having only one player crack the 50-point threshold in 2021-22, the Kraken currently boast seven skaters producing at that rate (or better) through the first months’ worth of games. The team might not continue to convert at an 11.1% clip (fifth), but it’s clear their scoring ranks have been bolstered to a significant degree.
First-Ever Playoff Spot a Real Possibility
Making any ironclad statements about the NHL less than a quarter into a given season is setting up for disaster. Hockey is notoriously one of the sports most affected by randomness, and skaters and goalies alike are increasingly prone to unsustainable bouts of shooting and goaltending luck in either direction. Even so, the Kraken have seen improvements in their two most significant weaknesses from their first year and have unsurprisingly begun to tally up more victories as a result. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are hot on their tails for the division’s final automatic playoff slot, but the Kraken’s underlying results suggest their early-season success is far from a fluke. Can they keep it up until the New Year?