The Seattle Kraken was set up for some degree of disappointment in their debut season through no fault of their own.
The immediate success of the Golden Knights when they entered the league five years ago set an impossibly high bar that was going to be almost unreachable for any new expansion team that followed. Vegas’ success was the perfect storm of some luck, some shrewd trades and roster moves, and 30 other NHL general managers working in perfect unison to all lose their collective minds and not exactly know how to navigate the expansion process.
(We are going to lose one player? Well, let us just go ahead and give you two players and a first-round draft pick instead!)
In a shocking twist, many of them learned their lesson and did not repeat their mistakes in helping a new team build an immediate Stanley Cup contender.
Even so, there was still a belief that Seattle could at least be somewhat competitive in its inaugural season. The Pacific Division seemed weak on paper, and they spent significantly on defense and goaltending, with the latter position looking like a potential strength that could keep them in games.
Entering the week, Seattle has been anything but competitive in the playoff race. The Kraken has the NHL’s fourth-worst points percentage (.364) and are 11 points behind every other team in the Pacific Division, while any dreams of a playoff appearance in their first season already seem shattered.
So what has happened here to produce this result?
Let’s start with goaltending
On paper this looked to be Seattle’s greatest strength, which followed the blueprint of Vegas’ debut season (where they had Marc-Andre Fleury). The Kraken invested heavily in goal by signing free agent (and Vezina Trophy finalist) Philipp Grubauer to a six-year, $35.4 million contract, and then selecting Chris Driedger from the Florida Panthers and signing him to a three-year, $10.5 million contract.
Only three teams — Tampa Bay, Florida, and Montreal — entered the season with a bigger salary cap investment in the position.
It seemed like a solid strategy, especially given the production that Grubauer and Driedger showed in the previous two seasons. Of the 67 goalies that appeared in at least 25 games between 2019-20 and 2020-21, Driedger and Grubauer ranked first (Driedger) and 12th (Grubauer), respectively in all situations save percentage and first (Driedger) and 10th (Grubauer) in even-strength save percentage. Is that always the best evaluator for goalies? Of course not, and both were playing behind better teams when they put up those numbers. But there was still at least some sort of recent track record of success with both, and what should have been a reasonable expectation that some of that could have transferred to Seattle.
It has not yet transferred to Seattle.
Entering play this week the Kraken ranks 32nd in all situations and even-strength save percentages as a team, while the individual marks for the goaltenders are both near the bottom of the league. Of the 57 goalies that have appeared in at least eight games, Grubauer is last in both categories, while Driedger is 53rd (all situations) and 45th (even-strength).
Great goaltending can mask a lot of flaws.
Bad goaltending can create flaws that do not actually exist.
It is a powerful position.
But what about that defense?
This is where things get a little interesting.
Along with goaltending, Seattle made a huge investment in its blue line, picking Mark Giordano, Vince Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, and Adam Larsson to lead their blue line, making several long-term commitments to them.
On Monday, hockey analyst Jack Han tackled some hypothesis’ regarding Seattle’s style of play and what impact it might have on their goalies, and how both their offensive zone and neutral zone strategies (likely put in place to compensate for a lack of impact on talent at forward and defense) might leave them susceptible to odd-man rushes the other way.
It all makes some sense.
But statistically speaking Seattle’s defensive performance has at least been solid and what was expected on a team level. The Kraken has been one of the league’s best teams when it comes to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances. They are in the top-10 in all of those categories and near the top of the league.
Usually — emphasis on usually — teams that do a good job of limiting shots, shot attempts, and chances also do a good job of limiting goals against.
Just as one example: Of the 10 best teams in terms of limiting shots on goal against during 5-on-5 play, seven of them are also in the top-10 in goals against, two others are 15th and 16th, and then there is Seattle in 30th place. Unless they are truly giving up an obscene number of odd-man rushes, it really does seem as simple as saying “the goaltending has been bad.”
Missed opportunities and some bad luck
Offense has also been an issue this season, which takes us back to the very beginning.
• Even at the time there was some criticism of Seattle’s expansion draft approach for maybe not taking full advantage of what was available or doing as much as it could to make deals. The most obvious missed opportunity was probably in not taking Vladimir Tarasenko when he was sitting right there. That is not to take anything away from Vince Dunn (the player they did take from St. Louis) who is a very good player. He just is not Vladimir Tarasenko. On one hand, it is understandable why St. Louis passed on Tarasenko given the injury concerns and the contract. But it is not like the contract had a ton of term left, they had the salary cap space to work with, and the upside for a healthy Tarasenko is, well, just what he is doing this season.
• Signing Alexander Wennberg to a three-year contract worth more than $4 million per season following a season where he had a 20 percent shooting percentage, an obvious outlier from most of his career, seemed like a questionable decision. He has three goals on 45 shots in 33 games this season, reverting back to his normal career numbers.
• Then there is the curious case of Joonas Donskoi. Over the previous four years he was a possession-driving, strong two-way player that scored at a 20-25 goal pace over 82 games. An extremely useful, valuable player in San Jose and Colorado and what looked to be a strong expansion draft pick. He currently has zero goals in 33 games, a development that even the harshest pessimist could not have predicted. Between him, Wennberg, and Jaden Schwartz that trio has accounted for just nine goals on 154 shots on goal, while accounting for more than $14 million in salary cap space.
So while Vegas was the perfect storm of everything going right at the same time, Seattle has been the exact opposite, where everybody else in the league learned their lesson, they missed some opportunities, and players that should have been better have struggled.