The Kraken Have Washed Ashore, But They’re Not Stranded

The meaningful portion of the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural season in the NHL ended on Wednesday night with a dull thud on national TV. In a home game against Vegas—the expansion franchise that set such high expectations for Seattle in the first place—the Kraken failed to score against a goalie making his 10th career start and fell 3-0 to be officially eliminated from playoff contention with 15 games remaining. Though Kraken fans did at least get to briefly celebrate a late goal that was overturned on a close offside call, there was little to write home about in this one, as Vegas created the majority of good chances and took advantage of a costly turnover and then a juicy rebound to build all they needed for a comfortable, crucial two points as they fight for their own playoff lives. If there was any standout performance from the Kraken, it was the arena sound guy who had the wherewithal and reflexes to cue up the Fresh Prince theme during an early fight.

This is not how anyone in the Kraken organization hoped things would end, with a blogger writing an obit at the end of March while complimenting a music choice. Vegas opened people’s eyes to the way a solid team without any obvious stars could suddenly coalesce into a contender, and Seattle had seemingly done an effective job of acquiring the pieces necessary to be at least a tough match-up every night.

At least some of that thinking, frankly, wasn’t wrong, particularly when it came to the Seattle blue line. Led by former Norris winner Mark Giordano, the Kraken managed to construct a tough defensive unit filled out by guys in their primes like Vince Dunn and Jamie Oleksiak, who had either recently had down years or were just the odd men out on their teams’ protected lists. That area is the one real success story for the Kraken, as they’ve ranked fourth in the NHL by allowing just 29.1 shots per game and sit in the top 10 for high-danger odds against. That, in theory, should have been the first step toward making the Kraken a team that could steal a win in a close game. But there weren’t many close games. Seattle sports a 21-40-6 record for a reason. A lot of the blame has to go to the forwards, as players like Yanni Gourde and Jordan Eberle—the secondary scorers on good teams that the Kraken were allowed to acquire—failed to up their production with increased playing time, putting the Kraken 29th in shots and 28th in goals per game.

Everyone understood that scoring was always most likely to be the team’s weaknesses, however. The real disaster came in the Kraken’s own crease, as what looked to be a formidable goalie tandem instead shocked and horrified the world, putting up the worst save percentage in the entire NHL. Philipp Grubauer, the main man, had just finished third in the Vezina voting as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, but the fickle nature of the shot-stopping spirits turned on him after he changed franchises, as he’s put up easily the worst season of his career and been by far the biggest liability in the league. Chris Driedger, the backup that looked promising in limited showings for the Panthers, has also failed to meet expectations, and despite those decent-looking defense numbers the undependable netminding has the Kraken 27th in the league with 3.51 goals allowed per game. The lack of firepower from the offense makes it unfair to pin the Kraken’s current position on the goaltending alone, as it would take a truly outstanding masked man to drag the Kraken’s low-scoring games across the finish line. But the way Grubauer has wilted in the spotlight, his mistakes by him presenting themselves more embarrassingly when they’re harder to make up on the other end, has made him the unfortunate focal point of this team’s relative failure.

But it’s not all bad, at least moving forward into next year and beyond. The defense, as I’ve said, is already the exact kind of defense you could find on a team that can win a playoff series or two. Goaltending, too, could be a place for optimism—hear me out! Nobody anywhere ever really knows what the hell is going on at that position. Driedger is still relatively young at 27. Grubauer at 30 has a career save percentage of .915, and this season is such a blatant outlier that one would be wise to treat it as such. Would a rapid recovery be any weirder than Jacob Markstrom or Freddie Andersen enjoying bounceback years? OK, a little, but not that much weirder.

The Kraken also have tones of draft picks coming their way, as they intentionally created a roster filled with impending free agents for maximum flexibility, and then at the deadline they shipped a bunch of those guys off to contenders. Thanks to the trades of Calle Jarnkrok, Jeremy Lauzon, and Giordano, the Kraken have three additional second-round choices in next year’s draft alone, plus more in other rounds and over the next few cycles. And the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, Matty Beniers, could be the jolt of life the forwards need when he arrives from the University of Michigan.

Doing it as a slow, steady build—the way an expansion team is supposed to have to do it—isn’t as fun as blasting into the Stanley Cup Final right off the bat, but it’d be a lot worse if the Kraken were completely locked into years of losing with a roster that had been assembled more short-sightedly. Instead, they’re a bad team for whom nearly everything went wrong, but one with a fairly clear path to improvement, especially if a few breaks and regressions go their way. Kraken fans won’t be cheering on their team in a late-spring series, but they’ll be able to console themselves watching their prospects (Beniers is headed to the Frozen Four!), researching Swedish teens that could soon be drafted, and praying that somebody figures out how the hell to play goalie around here. It’s perhaps not the NHL experience that was sold to them, but it’s the most authentic one.

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