Although the NHL isn’t yet at the exact midway point of the 2022-23 season, the Christmas break and the impending new year are significant checkpoints at which to evaluate the season to date.
Prior to the start of the campaign, I came up with three big questions that would likely define the Seattle Kraken’s second season. With over 30 games in the books, we have a large enough sample from which to glean a few keen observations and (premature) answers to those questions. Without further ado, let’s dive in with question number one.
Question #1: Is Head Coach Hakstol Fired This Season?
Given the immediate success enjoyed by the Kraken’s expansion cousins in the Vegas Golden Knights, the bar was placed just a bit higher for Seattle than for previous expansion franchises. Yet, instead of crafting a dizzying run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Kraken finished dead last in the Pacific Division and 30th overall. They were rewarded with star prospect Shane Wright for their efforts, but the 2021-22 season was still viewed as an immense disappointment due to the hype going into the campaign.
It’s understandable, then, that head coach Dave Hakstol found himself on the hot seat. With a reputation as a defense-minded bench boss, the Kraken’s porous play in their own end (24th in goals against per game) brought his ability to lead the team into question. What he and the team have collectively accomplished to this point of the season should make Hakstol slightly more comfortable regarding his job security.
The Kraken currently sit third in the Pacific Division by points and fourth in the Western Conference by points percentage (PTS%) with a record of 18-10-4. They’ve leapfrogged division rivals in the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames – both playoff teams last season – to nestle into one of the Pacific’s three automatic postseason slots.
Both the Kraken’s box score and underlying numbers paint a picture of a much-improved team worthy of their strong record. They rank sixth in goals per game (3.53) and are controlling 53.6% of all shots (seventh), 51.8% of expected goals (12th), and 50.7% of scoring chances (16th) at 5v5. Their shooting percentage is a bit inflated at 11.9% (second in the league), but they’re driving play in the right direction more often than not, a better indicator of future success.
Barring a disastrous collapse that sees the Kraken miss out on the playoffs altogether, Hakstol’s job should not be in jeopardy. In fact, he may be one of the frontrunners for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach if he continues to steer the Kraken along at their current 103-point pace. This question isn’t ultimately settled, but it looks to be leaning heavily in one direction.
Question #2: Can Grubauer Regain His 2020-21 Form?
The only thing questioned more than the fit of the Kraken’s new offseason additions or how their rookie centers would fare was which Philipp Grubauer would emerge in 2022-23. After inking a hefty free-agent contract in the summer of 2021, expectations were high for the German netminder as he now counted himself among one of the highest-paid goalies in the league. That he only had one season as a starter under his belt beforehand (in 2020-21 with the Colorado Avalanche) introduced some uncertainty, and his play did nothing to quell those concerns.
Grubauer played 55 games for the Kraken last season and posted an .889 save percentage (SV%), as well as allowing 33.7 goals above expected (GSAx), the worst mark in the league. His abysmal performance was a big reason for the Kraken’s underwhelming debut season, especially as their underlying 5v5 numbers painted them as an above-average defensive team when it came to suppressing shots and scoring chances. For them to have any chance at a playoff spot, Grubauer would have to be much, much better in 2022-23.
Unfortunately for Grubauer, he suffered an injury early into the season and conceded the crease to Martin Jones until returning a few weeks ago. To his credit, he has been markedly better than last year, but that’s not saying much. He’s only allowed 1.4 goals above expected despite owning a worse SV% (.882).
Both marks put him within the bottom half of all goalies, but it’s enough of an improvement that, combined with the Kraken’s increased firepower, they’re actually winning games. Most of that success has come with Jones at the helm, so it remains to be seen which Grubauer will emerge for the rest of the season. If he can return to his Vezina Trophy-caliber form of 2020-21, that would go a long way in protecting the Kraken from any regression in their shooting luck.
Question #3: Will One of Beniers and Wright Win the Calder Trophy?
Through the first 30-odd games of the season, only one of the Kraken’s pair of prized rookies looks to be in contention for the Calder Trophy.
Among all rookie skaters, center Matty Beniers ranks first in goals (11), tied for second in assists (14), and first in points (25). He also paces the field in even-strength points (20) and ranks second among all freshmen forwards in average ice time (just over 17 minutes a night). More impressive than his scoring totals is his exceptional positional awareness and discipline. Beniers has only been whistled for a single minor penalty this season and boasts the seventh-best penalty differential in the entire league (penalties drawn minus penalties taken) at plus-11.
In comparison, Shane Wright has struggled to make much of an impression to date. He’s only tallied two points in eight games, often being designated as a healthy scratch and playing under nine minutes on average in the games he does slot in for the Kraken. It’s a difficult ask for a rookie to immediately impact play while they are still transitioning to professional life, but even more so when they have so few opportunities to make a difference.
Fortunately, the Kraken allowed Wright to join Team Canada at the 2023 World Junior Championship, where he will presumably be used in a high-leverage position given his seniority. A decision will have to be made on his rest-of-season future once he returns, but at least he will play in high-pressure situations and be a part of the core leadership group as Wright was named captain of this year’s squad.
For now, it appears as though Beniers has gained the upper hand on his Calder competition. The likes of Owen Power and Cole Perfetti, among others, are the most likely candidates to challenge Beniers for the rookie throne, but he’s got the offensive numbers and the more difficult position to boot.
2023 Promises to Be a Big Year for the Kraken
Finding a way to stay in the thick of the playoff race should be the goal for the Kraken in the back half of the 2022-23 season. Their current standing suggests that they should challenge for a wildcard slot at the very least, but snagging one of the automatic divisional spots is well within reach.
Even so, their efforts should be kept in perspective. The Kraken are on pace for about a 40-point improvement in the standings compared to their inaugural campaign and have been one of the most exciting groups on a nightly basis this season.
Winning the Stanley Cup may not be in the cards for an organization still finding their place in the NHL hierarchy, but things look much more promising for the league’s newest franchise.