OT: Release the Kraken! | The college butler
Members of the 2021 Seattle Kraken NHL Expansion Draft Class. Left to Right: Jordan Eberle, Chris Driedger, Brandon Tanev, Jamie Oleksiak, Haydn Fleury and Mark Giordano. Photo courtesy of Alika Jenner.
SHAWN CASTERS | STAFF JOURNALIST | [email protected]
After 16 years of no expansion, the National Hockey League has added two new teams in the past five years. These two teams – the Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken – will face off on NHL opening night on October 12.
The Golden Knights shocked the sports world in 2018 by qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Their performances set the bar high for all expansion teams who followed in their footsteps to achieve a similar level of success from the start.
Being the first expansion team to follow the Golden Knights will force the Kraken to face pressure felt by no other expansion team in NHL history.
Now hold your horses, Seattle fans, let’s think about it.
Was the Golden Knights’ magical season an anomaly? Has veteran Kraken general manager Ron Francis done enough this offseason to put together a playoff squad?
The first order of business for Francis was the expansion plan in July. Francis’ decisions were heavily critical by hockey experts and fans. Seattle’s selection of relatively unknown players like Carsen Twarynski and Gavin Bayreuther were among those condemned by Francis’s critics. However, Francis’ strategy was obvious: go big or come home.
In fact, going big is an understatement. Francis decided to go there en masse, especially in terms of defense. Seattle’s projected defensive lineup averages nearly 6-3 / 4, 212 pounds. This formation is the fifth tallest in average height in the NHL. The imposing Kraken defense features the league’s heaviest and third tallest player, Jamie Oleksiak, reaching 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds.
Of the four teams ahead of the Kraken in terms of average defensive height, three of those teams are the Vegas Golden Knights, New York Islanders and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those three teams were three of the four that qualified for the 2021 playoff semi-finals.
Defensive size clearly translates to success in the NHL. The Kraken were fashioned by Francis to be an extremely difficult team to generate an attack against. The Kraken’s defensive core should punish any skilled offensive star trying to attack Seattle’s goal. If the pucks are capable of overtaking Seattle’s gigantic defense, Seattle already has one of the strongest goaltending tandems as a second line of defense.
Part of Francis’ strategy to build the Kraken team was to make a big splash in the free agency market. The Kraken accomplished this by signing former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Last year Grubauer finished third by voting for the Vézina Trophy, the award for the best NHL goalie.
Along with Grubauer, Seattle picked former Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger in the expansion draft. As a Florida substitute, Driedger put in some starter numbers, winning 14 of his 23 games and posting a .927 save percentage.
Grubauer and Driedger were both excellent attacking teams last season. The continued success of these goalies may depend on Seattle’s offensive performance. Even if Seattle can prevent their opponents from scoring, it won’t matter unless the Kraken can score themselves. Unfortunately, the Kraken’s biggest weakness is its attack.
Last year’s aforementioned playoff semi-finalists boasted big, solid defensive units, but also relied on offensive superstars to make a deep playoff push. The Islanders have underrated star Mathew Barzal, the Golden Knights have Mark Stone and the Lightning are led by dominant offensive forces Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
Conversely, the best striker in the Kraken is Yanni Gourde, who recorded less than spectacular numbers with 36 points in 56 games the previous season. Gourd is also expected miss the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury. The rest of the offense will come from players like Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz who are capable strikers but have proven not to be stars.
There is always the possibility that multiple players will have breakout seasons that would propel the Kraken into a playoff push. Very few predicted the Golden Knights would advance to the playoffs in their first season, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. However, with increased playing time, younger players like William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault saw huge offensive improvements that allowed the Golden Knights to achieve great achievements.
Could a Seattle player like Jared McCann or Joonas Donskoi, both imported from teams where they were eclipsed by talented stars, see similar improvements that will help the Kraken advance to the playoffs? The possibility certainly exists.
The final aspect to consider when assessing Seattle’s potential performance is which division the team is in. The Kraken are expected to play in the Pacific Division, which appears to be the weaker of the NHL’s four.
The Anaheim Ducks are in full rebuild mode. The San Jose Sharks are a sick, aging team with little promise. The once promising Calgary Flames imploded last season, fired their coach, missed the playoffs and lost captain Mark Giordano to the Kraken this offseason. The Vancouver Canucks are a talented team, but were plagued by inconsistencies last season that caused them to miss the playoffs. The Los Angeles Kings are a freshly rebuilt squad with young talent, but it’s unclear if they’re ready to return to the playoff race.
The only two lockdowns to the playoffs appear to be the star-studded Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers. Three teams are guaranteed to advance to the playoffs in each division, leaving a place in the Pacific wide open. The Kraken has as much of a chance to grab this spot as any of the other dubious teams mentioned.
Overall, there are many factors that will decide whether the Seattle Kraken can join the Golden Knights as a successful expansion franchise in the first year. With a big defensive core, competent goalkeepers, and maybe a star or two, you can expect the Kraken to be at the heart of the battle for a playoff berth.