Are the Kraken a legitimate playoff contender? What execs, analysts and the players themselves say

Sports

There’s always that one surprise NHL team. The success story we don’t see coming.

They’ve gone from missing the playoffs — usually by a sizable margin — to beginning the following season so well that it forces an inevitable question: Are they for real?

This season’s Cinderella turn has belonged to the Seattle Kraken.

Let’s face it: The Kraken’s inaugural 2021-22 season was marred by constant defeat. Seattle never crested past .500 after playing their second game, endured at least six separate streaks with four or more losses and fielded criticism about their expansion draft strategy.

Well, the Kraken are back to issue a rebuttal.

Seattle went into this season’s holiday break sitting third in the Pacific Division with a 18-10-4 record and a .625 points percentage. Around Christmas last season, Seattle was 27th in the league at 10-16-3. Clearly, times have changed. But why? And by how much?

To answer those burning inquiries and others — including how sustainable Seattle’s success is and whether it will lead to a playoff berth — we went straight to the source.

Here’s what Seattle’s players are saying, how executives and analysts view the club and what the Kraken’s underlying numbers can reveal about their impressive sophomore start.


What the players say

It didn’t take long for the Kraken to have an aha! moment.

They had just won five straight games — including three on the road — in late October and early November. All four teams Seattle played had all reached the postseason in 2021-22.

It was a stretch that showed Kraken winger Jordan Eberle how Seattle had transformed.

“I think it’s a process of finding a way of winning games with the team you have,” Eberle said. “I thought last year we had games where we had that game, we were playing that game, winning that game. It was too inconsistent. I don’t know if it was a lack of depth or whatever it may be, but we weren’t consistently doing that.”

Understanding why the Kraken’s players have faith — or even why the team still has skeptics — requires looking back on how Seattle arrived at this stage. The Kraken had to write a new narrative, one in which they were capable of more than just promising glimpses and crushing defeats.

Last season, Seattle struggled for consistent scoring. Seven players accounted for 55% of their goals. That lack of sustained offensive production was compounded further by what Kraken coach Dave Hakstol described in April as a disconnect between their defensive principles and goaltending. Seattle was allowing the fourth-fewest shots and the eighth-fewest high-danger goals per game, while also giving up the eighth-most high-danger goals and ninth-most goals per game.

So, Seattle flipped the script and became one of the league’s more prolific offensive teams, ranking sixth in goals per game (3.53).

That came about through a by-committee approach that really began last season, when the Kraken signed Matty Beniers — the No. 2 pick of the 2021 draft — to an entry-level contract. Beniers joined Seattle following his sophomore season at the University of Michigan and scored nine points in 10 games. It would be a good omen for his — and the Kraken’s — coming year.

Seattle also signed winger Andre Burakovsky and defenseman Justin Schultz in free agency and traded for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand. Burakovsky paces the Kraken with 28 points, while Beniers is third with 25. Bjorkstrand has 16 points in 32 games; Schultz has 17 points in 30 games.

“Right from the beginning, I saw the personnel they had and the different signings they made in the offseason,” Bjorkstrand said. “They had additions like Matty Beniers and so on, and I got excited. I thought it looked like a group that had a lot of potential, and I was excited about being part of this team.”

The Kraken have also seen players such as Will Borgen, Morgan Geekie and Daniel Sprong take on greater roles. Borgen has already scored more points than he did last season and is five games shy of matching what he did last year. Geekie has 13 points in 26 games and is on pace to give the Kraken a bottom-six forward with a 30-point season. Meanwhile, Sprong has 19 points in 25 games and is two points shy of setting a career high.

Add it all up, and Seattle had 16 players with 10-plus points before Christmas. That was more than the league-leading Boston Bruins (13) or Vegas Golden Knights (12).

“That’s been huge having those guys,” Kraken defenseman Carson Soucy said. “It’s also comfortable for them. Last year … there were not always roster spots available. Now, those guys are getting comfortable and you are seeing guys earning their spot and getting used to playing has been huge for them. Good on those guys for being ready night in and night out and having consistency.”

Getting comfortable in Hakstol’s structure is another pillar of Seattle’s success. Eberle said every system and every team has their nuances. It just takes time for players to familiarize themselves with what their coaches want.

The Kraken needed a full-team buy-in to what Hakstol preached, which Soucy claims is now the case. Soucy said the Kraken’s defensive structure has evolved into a system that requires “a lot of skating” and for its centers to always be involved within the defensive zone. And it also takes all five skaters being fully committed.

The results were there through Christmas as Seattle had allowed the third fewest shots per 60 in 5-on-5 play, the ninth-fewest goals per 60 in 5-on-5 and ranked 13th in high-danger goals allowed per 60 in 5-on-5.

“You can tell [when the system works]. You can tell from how tired you are if it is working or not,” Soucy said. “Some games, you are breezing through with forwards closing down plays and checking. I can tell if it is an easier game because my legs do not feel like they are burning.”

The Kraken’s maturation also played a part in easing Martin Jones into finding early success. The Kraken signed Jones after Chris Driedger — coming off a rocky NHL season — tore an ACL at the IIHF Men’s World Championships in June. That left Seattle with only Philipp Grubauer and Joey Daccord under contract, and the intention was for Jones to work in tandem with Grubauer moving ahead.

Then Grubauer was injured after playing just five games this season. That left Jones to play in 18 of the Kraken’s first 22 games. He gave them stability, and Jones has already surpassed his win total from last season. Grubauer has recently recovered as well, which has lessened Jones’ workload and given the Kraken a veteran tandem. Driedger could return at some point after January.

That’s why the Kraken’s five-game winning streak against teams that made the playoffs last year was so monumental. Eberle said the team learned it could win in different ways. He said they “stole” the second game but played the way they wanted in the rest of those games.

Winning those games helped establish the Kraken’s confidence in believing they can make the playoffs. Eberle said the mindset earlier in the season was that having a good effort was important. And while that matters, the Kraken also know they must play with more edge and confidence with the realization that the days of being satisfied with good efforts are “behind us.”

But with that confidence comes companionable caution.

“We gotta play 60 minutes most nights to get the win,” Bjorkstrand said. “I don’t think we are a team that can relax on the ice and sneak away with the win. We need to work hard for our wins. Where it can slip out of hand is if we get satisfied and start thinking you are better than what you are. We need to keep it going with the wins we get. You don’t want to go down a bad path.”


What the stats say

Seattle is a long way from where it finished last season.

The Kraken had, through 32 games, a 12.55 goals above expected that ranked third in the NHL (compared to 19th a year ago), an expected goals per 60 of 3.1 (19th) and expected goals-against per 60 of 3.04 (15th). Seattle also ranked second in shooting percentage (11.9%), compared to 27th a season ago (9.0%).

A constant has been the Kraken’s stinginess on defense, reflected in their allowing the fourth-fewest shots in the league (28.1 per game).

“What I see is a capable defensive team that doesn’t give up a lot,” one analytics source said. “They don’t get overwhelmed. They’re not under siege all the time. For the most part, they can play a good defensive game every night. You just need your goaltender to stop [those] stoppable pucks.”

That’s where Seattle has stumbled. The Kraken are 18th in goals-against average (3.21), pointing to one of the larger team issues analysts and analytics experts agree should be addressed: goaltending.

Jones has carried the load in net for Seattle and been just good enough through late December, with a 14-5-3 record, .888 save percentage and 2.99 goals-against average. But will that effort level suffice in the long term?

According to MoneyPuck.com, Jones was the league’s 58th-ranked goaltender (out of 80 total) through those 23 appearances, and he ranked 22nd — out of 25 — in goals saved above expected (-2.3) among goalies with a minimum 20 starts.

Meanwhile, Grubauer has seen only limited action to date, earning a 3-6-1 record with .889 SV% and 3.28 GAA.

“I don’t want to say [goaltending] has held them back, but it’s not performed,” former NHL goalie and current league analyst Marty Biron said. “When you look at Martin Jones, his win-loss record is fantastic, but not his [underlying numbers]. There, you’re not top-20; you’re not even top-30. There’s still improvements to be made in the net, and I think that, to me, [shows] that year after year, Seattle is going to have to build certain parts of their team up. Goaltending and defense may have to be something they look at moving forward.”

An analytics source was more blunt about what they’re seeing from the Kraken thus far.

“I’d be worried about how much pressure is on Seattle’s offense to carry the day,” the source said. “You’re already starting to see that, unless they’re getting three, four, five goals a night, Seattle’s losing games. Or not winning as many tight games or one-goal games. That’s a problem when the second half of the season picks up, teams are settled in and making trades and getting better, and Seattle could wind up in the dust if their most successful formula requires four-plus goals a game. You’re not going to sustain that and you’re certainly not going to get away with it in the playoffs.”

That won’t inevitably be the case for Seattle, though. Every team endures ebbs and flows. Stats are constantly in motion. Right now, only one figure truly matters.

“You can’t complain when you’re winning games,” Biron said. “Even though I think they would like better numbers [overall]. I don’t think goaltending is as good as they want it to be. And you don’t want it to be an issue in the second half of the season to try and keep winning despite putting up not-so-great numbers like that.”


What they’re saying around the league

It’s not that Seattle wasn’t expected to improve upon a lackluster rookie season.

It’s the degree to which they’ve done it so far that’s been most surprising.

“I don’t think anyone could predict the bounce-back that Seattle’s showed this year,” NHL analyst and former player Anthony Stewart said. “I don’t think anyone probably had them in a playoff spot, let alone challenging for the [Pacific] Division, right? Everyone was talking about L.A. and Vancouver being good and possibly San Jose making a push, and here comes Seattle sort of out of nowhere. So it’s very, very surprising. And I think they’ve taken the league by storm.”

Stewart wonders how much of that shock could be attributed to the classic East Coast vs. West Coast bias, wherein Seattle’s accomplished opening would grab more attention playing out in another time zone.

“I don’t think a lot of people are talking about them,” he said. “You sort of mention it in passing, like, ‘Oh, yeah, Seattle is doing pretty good.’ And that’s it. I don’t know if it’s a lack of respect, because they’re playing some good hockey. It’s good to see; it’s a great story this year.”

And these have only been the Kraken’s first chapters. For one executive who spoke with ESPN, there’s a reason to buy what Seattle’s selling.

“They’re not smoke and mirrors,” they said.

What stood out most was the Kraken’s continuity and how players acquired in the offseason such as Burakovsky, Bjorkstrand, Daniel Sprong and Schultz, along with veterans already on the team, gave them balance. That allowed younger players such as Beniers to be around experienced skaters who can “show him and help him.”

“The biggest thing for me is that they have depth,” Biron said. “They were able to put their team together and give themselves more impactful players. And when I say impactful, it doesn’t have to be Connor McDavid impactful. But there’s more players on the team that can change the way a game is being played, so they don’t have to rely on just a handful of guys. That to me has been the biggest change for Seattle.”

And Beniers? The 20-year-old is drawing high praise across the board for a standout freshman season that has put him at the front of this year’s Calder Trophy race.

“When I look at their team, I think, ‘What would it look like without Matty Beniers?’ TSN analyst and former NHL GM Craig Button said. “For me, that’s the guy. Matty doesn’t just rely on offense to contribute. I think Matty Benier has really been significant; I think he’s delivered in a big way.”

Seattle’s new players have seemed to bolster the team’s entire confidence level. One executive pointed out how the Kraken could outplay opponents last season but then be undone by “a bad goal.” It made that executive wonder how much Seattle’s morale was impacted game to game.

But now? He sees the Kraken as “a team that is always on you” because of their suffocating style — one he compared to the Carolina Hurricanes.

That led to praise for Kraken general manager Ron Francis and his front office staff for their offseason moves, including ones that haven’t been widely discussed.

“I have not seen Vince Dunn have very many poor games this year,” the executive said. “He’s a guy people might have forgotten about last year. This year, he is taking a step and becoming a top-four this season, maybe top-two. … Last year, it’s hard to quantify how poor goaltending played into their poor standings.”

Seattle has managed to avoid that fate early this season — at least when it comes to their position in the league — but there’s a consensus that the Kraken will eventually be held back by netminding if Francis sticks with the status quo.

“The goaltending is still not very good,” Button said. “Last year, they didn’t have the offensive weapons [they have now]. So when I look at it, they’ve got a lot more offense, they’ve got a lot more capability that allows you to overcome some below-average league goaltending. But you have a team that you don’t want to slip, right? So what’s the bigger problem: not finding a goaltender or paying a price to find a goaltender so your team doesn’t slip? So if you don’t want to slip, then there’s a price to be paid. I think they’ve got to find the solution, I really do. Because I don’t see the solution [in net] coming from within.”

The executive who talked about the goalies insisted the Kraken just need “adequate” goaltending to reach the postseason, though.

“If they [get the goaltending] and injuries don’t hurt them, I don’t see how they are not a playoff team,” the executive said. “I think they will be a tough out in the playoffs.”

The executive concerned about the Kraken handling a playoff push said that has more to do with teams that have not made the playoffs with their current rosters.

“When the games are starting to get more defensive and more clamped down, what direction do they go?” the executive asked. “Do they try to open up the offense or match that stinginess on the defensive side? That comes with experience.”

Getting to the playoffs means navigating what has already been a hectic Western Conference landscape. The Golden Knights, Kraken and Winnipeg Jets all missed the playoffs last season and are currently jockeying for spots, while last year’s conference finalists — the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers — were both in the final wild-card spot around Christmas.

Stewart is optimistic Seattle can use the right attitude to work its way into that postseason mix.

“They’re well on their way to [getting that berth],” he said. “They just have to stay the course, right? They just can’t really read the headlines. You’ve got to just continue to put in the work and almost have that underdog mentality, just continue to go to work. I know with the coaching staff that they have, they’re focusing on taking it day by day. If they continue to do that, I think they’ll be just fine in securing their first playoff berth.”

One exec said the Kraken’s strong start does give them a little bit of wiggle room in the event they go through a rough stretch. But at the same time, losing cannot become habitual, as a crowded field of candidates will be desperate down the stretch to secure their spot.

“Everyone has to look around and think, ‘We could win our division, but we could also be ninth with a bad week or two,'” the executive said. “Even the top teams like Vegas, Winnipeg, Dallas, all of them. We’re all looking ahead to think we can win the division and be a playoff team but know with one or two bad weeks, some injuries and a bad goaltending stretch, that we could be in the muck.”

What about just bad goaltending in general? Concerns about that area repeatedly resurface as the most likely obstacle to Seattle potentially seeing its breakout season sour. It would make for a bitter end to this promising tale.

“[The Kraken won’t make playoffs] if they don’t get a better goaltender,” Button said. “And I’m making the distinction — not better goaltending; a better goaltender. And it’s not from within.”

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