Eide’s Seattle Kraken Preview: 3 things to watch in history-making NHL opener
When asked what he thought about his team’s NHL opener, Seattle Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer smiled, shrugged, and said he wasn’t sure what to expect out of an opening night like Tuesday’s inaugural game.
“I’ve never been a part of something like that, so I think that’s really exciting,” Grubauer said.
Grubauer will be front and center Tuesday when the Kraken hit the ice at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to face the NHL’s previous expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Like Grubauer, none of us truly know what to expect from the Kraken. The players have individual track records and statistics to break down, but we don’t know how they’ll perform as a team.
What we do have is three weeks of training camp and six preseason games to go off of.
Like most other sports, NHL preseason is not the best way to measure a team, but it’s what we have. Seattle by all appearances had a successful preseason, winning four of its six games, and certain themes did emerge to give us a glimpse of what the team will look like on Tuesday night and beyond.
On Monday, the team received news that will affect the lineup for Tuesday, but the Kraken hope not for long. After Monday’s practice Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol announced that Jared McCann, Joonas Donskoi, Jamie Oleksiak, and Marcus Johansson were in the NHL’s COVID protocol. They joined forward Calle Jarnkrok, who entered the protocol the week before. It’s unclear if those players will be available in Vegas.
Once they are back, what should we look for out of the Kraken this season? Will they score enough to contend for a playoff spot in a weakened Pacific Division? Will they have enough goaltending? And what style of play can we expect?
Here’s what to watch for from the Seattle Kraken as they open the season at 7 p.m. Tuesday night on ESPN.
1. The Seattle Kraken will be tough to score against.
After their NHL Expansion Draft in July, it was clear the Kraken were going to be a defensive club. It wasn’t just the defensemen they selected, but most of their forward group are strong two-way players, as well. A week after the draft, they made a flashier statement about how hard it was going to be to get the puck in their net.
On the first day of free agency, they landed Grubauer.
The 29 year old is coming off a season with the Colorado Avalanche where he won 30 games and posted a .922 save percentage. He was among the NHL’s best in goal and earned nomination for the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded annually to the league’s goalie of the year.
Grubauer was a salary cap casualty in Colorado, and the Kraken were surprised he was allowed to get to free agency at all. General manager Ron Francis didn’t hesitate and Seattle picked him up with a six-year deal worth $5.9 million a year, which should solidify the Kraken net.
Grubauer was good in the preseason, highlighted by his final game where he stopped 38 Vancouver shots in a 4-0 shutout. The number of saves was impressive but still undersell how good he really was. A deeper look from that night at his expected-goals number – a metric that measures shot quality and quantity – suggests he should have allowed over three goals. These weren’t floaters launched from the outside. He was kicking out chances in close, especially during four Canucks power plays where he made 12 saves.
He earned that shutout.
“I think we’re a fast team and we didn’t give up too many great quality chances,” Grubauer said. “I’m really looking forward to that and transition it into the regular season.”
Grubauer will get the majority of the starts in net for the Kraken, but backup goalie Chris Dreidger will play his share this year. He was a pleasant surprise for the Florida Panthers last season, even outplaying Florida’s high-salaried goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Dreidger had an up-and-down preseason, which the team hopes was due to some funky circumstances in a couple games. He has an impressive career save percentage of .929, but he also only has 38 NHL games under his belt.
If either goalie has an off night, Seattle’s defense did a good job of limiting shots during the preseason, which can be a goaltender’s best friend.
2. The Kraken will need to find secondary scoring.
One of the more surprising outcomes of preseason was the emergence of a top scoring line with Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle on the wings and the aforementioned Jared McCann at center. Together, the three have been consistent, gelled, and most importantly scored goals.
Seattle scored 16 goals over its six preseason games. The McCann line had five of them and helped set up three more, so they were involved in half of the Kraken goals during the preseason. McCann is on the COVID list so we may not see him Tuesday night, but once he’s eligible to play again he should slot back into the top line.
With the line clicking as well as it has been, Hakstol has also used the three forwards as part of his first power-play unit.
Having a line producing like the McCann line has is definitely a positive for the Kraken, but when one line is responsible for half of the goals, there may be an issue. In the regular season, the matchups will get tougher, and Seattle needs to find scoring elsewhere.
Some of the slack can be made up by the defense, and the Kraken have seen production from newly named captain Mark Giordano and Vince Dunn. The two defensemen are not afraid to jump into the rush and both can quarterback a power play. Dunn, who won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues, scored three times during the preseason (including twice on the power play), showing that he will help score goals.
Ultimately the Kraken will need other forward lines to provide offense. There are candidates like Alex Wennberg, who is coming off a career-best 17 goals last year in Florida. He also shot well above his career average, and the question remains whether that 20.7% shooting was an anomaly or sign of a young player ready to break out. We’ll get a good look Tuesday as Wennberg is the likely candidate to move up to the top line to replace McCann until his return from protocol.
Morgan Geekie scored a pair of goals in the preseason and looked good in camp. The 23-year-old former Tri-City Americans star has a tremendous shot and is another who could be on the verge of a breakout NHL season. Injured forwards Yanni Gourde and Colin Blackwell will also be a boost upon their return. Gourde has looked good in practice but is still not cleared to play, while Hakstol categorized Blackwell as out ‘indefinitely’ on Monday.
3. The Kraken need to crank up the forecheck.
Seattle will play a tight-checking and physical game all over the ice. They’ll create offense off their defense and the forecheck.
When the Kraken were on during the preseason, it was thanks to an aggressive forecheck that caused havoc in the opponent’s end and forced turnovers. This was most evident during Seattle’s 4-3 shootout win against Calgary on Sep. 29. With the score tied late in the third period, Schwartz and Eberle got in deep on the forecheck, stole the puck and scored a go-ahead goal.
“(The first forward) dictates the play,” McCann said of the forecheck. “If you can get good body position on the defenseman and create loose pucks, you’ve got to be quick there. We have this with a lot of our guys, so I feel it works to our advantage.”
In order to have an effective forecheck, the Kraken will have to have the puck and get it deep. The more they’re chasing it, the harder it is going to be to put pressure on the opponents’ defensemen, and Seattle will get in trouble.
Forechecking will be a key element to the Kraken scoring goals. Being hard on the forecheck is the identity of a tough, physical team. It’s the identity that Hakstol is creating with the Kraken. It won’t be easy to find room on the ice, and opponents are going to have to earn it against Seattle this season.
Andy Eide, Seattle Kraken insider for 710Sports.com, is a Seattle-area hockey reporter who previously led 710Sports.com’s coverage of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He also writes about the Kraken for NHL.com and Sound of Hockey.
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