To say that the 2021-22 campaign was disappointing for the entirety of the Seattle Kraken organization is a mild understatement. Despite entering the franchise’s inaugural season with fanciful daydreams of playoff aspirations, the NHL’s long-awaited return to a historically rich market did not match the homecoming’s level of romanticism.
While playing in arguably the league’s weakest division in the Pacific, the Kraken stumbled to last place with a meager 60 points. Although not necessarily out of line with the first seasons of many of the NHL’s previous expansion outfits, their 30th-overall finish served as a stark reminder that competitiveness is (usually) not forged overnight.
Regardless, the upcoming NHL season represents a chance to cast aside the Kraken’s woeful performance last year. In particular, the following three players have the most to prove in 2022-23 for one reason or another – let’s dive in.
Philipp Grubauer, Goaltender
There is perhaps no one more on the Kraken – or the league – sorely in need of a complete reset than Philipp Grubauer. The 30-year-old German netminder inked a massive six-year, $35.4 million contract with the expansion franchise after earning a Vezina Trophy nomination as the starter for the Colorado Avalanche.
Instead of building on his sparkling .923 save percentage (SV%) and plus-5.1 goals saved above expected (GSAx), the veteran goaltender imploded in his first season in the Pacific North West. He posted a grim .889 SV% and allowed a league-worst 32.6 goals more than expected, the fourth most of the analytics era (since 2007-08) according to Evolving Hockey’s database.
Unsurprisingly, the Kraken finished last in team SV% and vastly underperformed their otherwise stellar defensive numbers at 5v5. They finished third in shots against per-60 (SA/60) and eighth in chance quality allowed per-60 (xGA/60), both of which were overshadowed by the team’s historically poor goaltending.
As of this season, Grubauer’s contract carries an average annual value (AAV) of $5.9 million per year, which ranks ninth among all active goaltenders. There is no sugarcoating it; last season represents an overwhelmingly underwhelming return for what amounts to a sizeable financial commitment. If Grubauer returns to a level of play that simply approaches league average, the Kraken will be much better off in their second NHL campaign.
Vince Dunn, Defenseman
Given how much faith I have placed in Vince Dunn, his inclusion on this list is more of a reflection of the high expectations placed on him rather than the result of poor play. In fact, Dunn’s 35 points in 73 games last season led all Kraken defenders and lent credence to the idea that he is on the precipice of a true breakout season. After all, nearly all of the obstacles in his way have been negated or eliminated entirely by the Kraken’s work over the past several months, dating all the way back to the 2022 trade deadline.
First was the departure of the franchise’s first captain in Mark Giordano, who was traded to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for several draft picks. With the veteran’s exit, Dunn’s usage skyrocketed, positioning him as the team’s lead blueliner on the power play and getting first dibs on more favorable deployment.
Relatedly, the second factor which depressed his production was the Kraken’s crippling lack of potent offensive weapons, with Jared McCann leading the club with only 50 points last season. Heeding the cries for the infusion of more skill and scoring talent, general manager Ron Francis imported a number of capable forwards through the draft, trade, and free agency, including Oliver Bjorkstrand, Andre Burakovsky, and their 2022 first-rounder in highly-regarded center Shane Wright.
After years of toiling lower on the depth charts of both the St. Louis Blues and the Kraken to some degree, there is no greater opportunity for Dunn to take the next step in his development. He is, by all accounts, the team’s top offensive option on the backend and should see ample time directing a much-improved collection of forward options. If that does not lead to a bevy of career-highs for Dunn, it’ll be a significant disappointment.
Jaden Schwartz, Forward
By his scoring rate, winger Jaden Schwartz enjoyed a respectable first season in a Kraken uniform. His 23 points (eight goals and 15 assists) in 37 games translate to an 82-game total of 51 points, which aligns with his career averages. Still, his AAV of $5.5 million represents an expensive bet for a player who has never cracked 30 goals in a single season, who just turned 30 this summer, and only played in 77 of a possible 138 games over the past two seasons due to an upper-body injury. Given that his contract runs until the summer of 2026, the Kraken must be hoping for a more profitable return on investment this season.
Schwartz plays a physically demanding game which has likely contributed to his inability to stay healthy for an extended period of time. He last played more than 71 games in a single season back in 2016-17, and history suggests that he won’t transform into more of a sturdy ironman during the back-nine of his NHL career.
The history of NHL free agency is littered with examples of aging forwards being handed expensive contracts and then promptly seeing their bodies enter a rapid decline. Schwartz is teetering on the edge of bust territory and needs a relatively healthy and productive 2022-23 campaign to ward off those claims.
For what it’s worth, Schwartz owns a track record of being a reliable playoff performer from his time with the Blues. In 70 postseason appearances since 2016, he has scored 47 points (24 goals and 23 assists), including 20 points (12 goals) in the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup run. If the Kraken can clinch a playoff berth this season, Schwartz will surely be one of their fiercest contributors in crunch time. It’s getting there that’s the question.
2022-23 Shaping Up To Be Season of Redemption
Fortunately for members of the Kraken, the sports industry is one rife with recency bias. Disappointing campaigns are eagerly brushed aside into the rearview at the slightest inkling of a turnaround, with fans often suffering from a case of “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.” With the beginning of the 2022-23 regular season just around the corner, the aforementioned players are ready to re-write their NHL stories but will they be tales of redemption or ones defined by regret?