Kraken Breakdown: How defensive pairings have been key for Seattle

Jan 24, 2023, 10:58 AM
Seattle Kraken Adam Larsson Vince Dunn...
Adam Larsson celebrates a goal with fellow Kraken defenseman Vince Dunn against Washington on Dec. 9, 2022. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

During the second period of Saturday’s Kraken game to the Colorado Avalanche, with the score tied 1-1, Seattle defenseman Adam Larsson made the play of the game.

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A shot from Colorado forward Ben Meyers chipped past goalie Phillip Grubauer and was bounding toward the net. Larsson was there to backhand the puck to safety just before it went in the net.

“I have a hard time remembering,” Larsson said when asked about the play. “I think I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

The play saved a goal and the resulting point in the standings that Seattle earned in the 2-1 shootout loss that night. All in a night’s work for a defenseman like Larsson.

It’s a tough position that requires stout defensive play, but also puck retrieval and starting the breakout to kickstart the offense. Not only that, but you have to play and coordinate with a partner. Just what does it take to be a good defensive partner?

“I think a guy that’s relatively predictable and a guy that communicates well,” Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “I think that’s a huge thing. The game happens so fast, if you get a guy that can talk and let you know what’s going on, on the ice. It’s a huge advantage for sure.”

Oleksiak has mostly been teamed with veteran Justin Schultz this year. The duo has been paired together for 37 of the Kraken’s 46 games.

Overall, Seattle has been fortunate to have few injuries and defensive pairings that have remained intact.

“You’d love to have it all the time, but that’s not reality as you go through [the season],” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “The reality of it is you’re not going to have a fully healthy roster as you go all the way through and that’s where the other night (Cale) Fleury steps in and does a solid job.”

The Kraken have had a busy January schedule and the injury bug has finally found them.

Up front, the forward group has taken a hit with injuries to Jaden Schwartz and Andre Burakovsky. Defensively, Schultz has missed the last two games, forcing Fleury into the lineup and the defensive pairings to get shuffled.

Fleury jumped in and picked up his first point with the Kraken during a win against the New Jersey Devils and has fit in well.

Oleksiak played with Will Borgen in Schultz’s absence, while Fleury rotated in to play with Carson Soucy. The transition has been smooth despite the shuffle.

“For the most part, I think it’s usually a pretty smooth transition,” Oleksiak said. “When you’re at this level, you kind of learn how to adapt to certain situations and I think guys at this level are usually pretty good communicators and they’re good to talk to when you’re able to, you know, speak on the ice and read and stuff like that. It just makes the game so much easier for everybody and makes that adjustment so much easier.”

Soucy and Borgen have played 46 games together as Seattle’s “third pairing,” and they’ve been on the ice together for five more goals for than they’ve allowed.

“I think be consistent in kind of what we do, consistent in how we jump, how we play,” Soucy said about working with a partner. “But also, a good D partner kind of can take it on his own sometimes if the other D partner’s kind of tired. Make smart plays coming out of the D-zone and that helps us all. Another big thing is gaps I think can be a really good way to help your D partner. I think Borgen, he does a great job when he’s skating, he kind of surfs and takes away almost the whole line by himself. So that makes it easy for me. They chip the puck and I can go, that kind of thing. I think that’s what makes us work together.”

The word on how long or lingering the injury to Schultz is yet to be fully known, and the three pairings that Hakstol deploys may need to adjust.

He has not split up the top pairing of Larsson and Vince Dunn, who has been outstanding all season. The team is in a playoff position and getting consistent play out of their defensive pairings will be key.

The NHL trade deadline is March 3, and the rumor is that the Kraken may be in the market to add a defenseman to the stable. General manager Ron Francis will have to thread the needle of finding a player who is an upgrade without upsetting the chemistry he currently has with his defensive pairings.

The forwards play a key role

Seattle has played better defensively this season than it did the last. The Kraken have a plus-22 goal differential and are allowing 2.21 goals per 60 minutes, which is 10th best in the NHL.

The consistent defensive pairings and play are a big part of that improvement, but so is the play up front. A team’s defensive effort is a five-man operation and the forward’s play is important.

“When our forwards are skating, they’re tracking, they reload,” Soucy said. “It just allows us to stay up so much tighter on their forwards. When our forwards are above, that three allows us to pinch and they’ve done such a good job lately. Just kind of skate and back check and forcing the puck off their forward’s hands and letting us go get it.”

Kraken forwards have been playing well defensively. The centers bear an extra responsibility, often acting like a third defenseman helping retrieve the puck in the defensive end and starting the breakout. If you watch the replay of Larsson’s big play last Saturday, you’ll notice Matty Beniers right there to make the play as well.

Defense is a team effort and the Kraken have been fortunate enough – feel free to knock on any wood substance nearby – to stay relatively injury-free and consistent, which has led to improved play both upfront and from the back end.

The games are meaning more now and the post-All-Star run is right around the corner. How the Kraken hold up defensively will say a lot about whether they make the postseason or not.

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