Despite the swell of hype surrounding the city of Seattle’s return to the NHL fraternity, their long-awaited rebirth was an incredible disappointment by almost every metric. The Seattle Kraken finished last in the Pacific Division with a record of 27-49-6 (60 points) and were 37 points adrift of the Nashville Predators for the Western Conference’s final wildcard spot. Seattle’s struggles stemmed from a stagnant offense (29th in goals per game) and inept goaltending (last in team save percentage), far from a winning combination. Whether those two trends are reversed will be this season’s defining storylines.
Without further ado, let’s dive into a list of the most significant questions facing the Kraken ahead of opening night, the answers to which will determine if season number two is considered a success.
Question #1: Is Head Coach Hakstol Fired This Season?
Given how expansion franchises typically fare in their inaugural seasons, one would think that the head coach of a franchise building a competitive team on the fly has a longer leash than most. Unfortunately for Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol, the team’s impressive offseason means the well of excuses is quickly running dry.
The Kraken followed up drafting center Shane Wright fourth overall in the draft by signing a skilled shooter in Andre Burakovsky and trading for a two-way force in Oliver Bjorkstrand. Mix in offensive defenseman Justin Schultz, a full season of center Matty Beniers, and suddenly the roster is flush with offensive talents.
Seattle was also a strong defensive outfit at 5v5 by every metric save for goals against, which was mostly down to abysmal goaltending. They ranked fourth in the NHL in shots and expected goals against, fifth in scoring chances against, and eighth in high-danger chances conceded, all per 60 minutes. Hakstol should receive credit for those stout numbers, but they will only carry so much weight with the fans and the team owners unless the on-ice results follow suit.
Combine an improved forward group with strong underlying numbers and a potential rebound from the goalies, and the Kraken should have their sights set higher than just collecting a few more wins. If this season starts with a string of poor performances reminiscent of last season, Hakstol could be on the chopping block before long.
Question #2: Can Grubauer Regain His 2020-21 Form?
Besides a noticeably absent attack, the most significant factor in the Kraken’s underwhelming debut season was the dismal play from their netminders, and Philipp Grubauer in particular.
Before inking a six-year deal with Seattle in the summer of 2021, the German goalie had earned a Vezina Trophy nomination with the Colorado Avalanche in the 2020-21 season. His .922 save percentage (SV%) and 5.2 goals saved above expected (GSAx) helped steer the Avalanche to the second-best record in the NHL that season and he looked to be the Kraken’s backbone in year one.
Instead, Grubauer submitted one of the worst goaltending performances in recent memory, doing little to help the Kraken overcome their distinct lack of offense. He posted a .889 SV% (ninth-worst among goalies to play ten games or more) and allowed 33.7 goals more than expected, the worst mark in the NHL last season. The Kraken were an underrated team on the defensive end, but Grubauer’s inability to stop the puck overshadowed the one thing they did well last season.
Many will point to the quality of the Avalanche roster as a reason for his Vezina nomination, but GSAx accounts for the quality of chances allowed. Grubauer overperformed expectations despite playing behind a strong Colorado team but abruptly fell off during his first season in the Pacific North West.
Regaining his previous form could make the difference between another season spent occupying the NHL’s basement and challenging for the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth. Given his previous history and the Kraken’s respectable defensive outputs, I’d bet Grubauer returns to something approaching league average and raises the team’s floor. Goalies are notoriously fickle, however, so anything is possible.
Question #3: Will One of Beniers and Wright Win the Calder Trophy?
The third question facing the Kraken is regarding the outlook of their two promising centers in Beniers and Wright. Few teams have the good fortune of drafting potential franchise centers in consecutive drafts (Beniers was taken second overall in 2021), let alone an expansion club still fashioning the infrastructure needed to keep an organization running in order.
Wright, at one time considered the top prospect of the 2022 draft class, enjoyed a strong but unspectacular (by his lofty standards) draft-eligible season in tallying 94 points in 63 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) games for the Kingston Frontenacs. Whether it was the result of years of exposure to scouts or a lack of tangible development in recent seasons, many soured on Wright, which led to him dropping into the Kraken’s lap at fourth overall. He must still cement his spot during training camp, but all eyes will be on the 18-year-old and whether his maturity and on-ice awareness can directly translate to the NHL.
Flanking Wright is Beniers, the 19-year-old American pivot who excelled in every competition last season. After leading the University of Michigan in scoring and suiting up for the United States in the Olympics, he played 10 NHL games with the Kraken to end the season and scored nine points in his brief audition. He has the upper hand on Wright in terms of his place in the Kraken’s center hierarchy, given his experience, and should assume a spot on one of the team’s top-two forward lines and the top powerplay unit. If he manages to post decent possession numbers while putting up points at a rate resembling his 2021-22 pace, the Calder Trophy is as good as won.
Although the 2022-23 Calder field is loaded with the likes of Cole Perfetti (Winnipeg Jets), Marco Rossi (Minnesota Wild), Jake Sanderson (Ottawa Senators), Mason McTavish (Anaheim Ducks), and Owen Power (Buffalo Sabres) should be considered the favorites along with Beniers. McTavish eviscerated the OHL (40 points in 24 games) and the IIHF World Junior Championship (17 points in seven games) last season and should immediately slide in beside the electric Trevor Zegras for the rebuilding Ducks.
The towering Power (6-foot-6) – Beniers’ college teammate in 2020-21 – also got a taste of NHL action last season, scoring his first two professional goals in an eight-game stint with the Sabres. In his small sample of facing NHL forwards, he demonstrated poise beyond his years and a willingness to push the puck up the ice. A youth resurgence is underway in Buffalo, and Power leads the charge.
Whether either of the Kraken’s rookies actually earns the honor of being named the league’s rookie-of-the-year is beyond the point. If both are in the conversation for most, if not the entirety of the season, that will mean that they have successfully acclimated to the physical demands and heightened expectations attached to playing in the NHL as highly-regarded prospects. Even if the 2022-23 goes south, at least Kraken fans can enjoy watching the future of the franchise blossom before their eyes and help lay the foundation for a Stanley Cup contender in the near future.
What Will the Kraken Do for an Encore?
Although the Kraken fell short of expectations last season, being an expansion franchise gives them some leniency with the fanbase and the media. After an offseason in which several significant weaknesses were addressed through trades and free-agent signings, the bar is set much higher heading into the 2022-23 campaign. Earning the first-ever playoff spot in franchise history would be an enormous achievement, but even challenging for a wildcard berth should be interpreted as a marked improvement on their turbulent inaugural campaign.