Kraken endure rocky path in first half of expansion season

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SEATTLE — If there was a single game that served as a snapshot of how the Seattle Kraken wanted their inaugural season to look, it came on the night of Jan. 23.

The home arena was rocking during a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers, at the time the best team in the NHL. Seattle’s goaltending was superb. Seattle’s five goals came from a mix of core players and younger players who have shown flashes of promise. The night ended with stuffed salmon being flung into the stands in celebration.

“This market is going to be great for a long, long time, because you can just tell people are really, really into hockey here and really grasping it,” Seattle captain Mark Giordano said.

Unfortunately for the Kraken, those nights have been rarities. Seattle’s first season may be a success off the ice with a full arena, merchandise being snatched off store shelves and a popular team dog, appropriately named Davy Jones.

But the on-ice product has failed to match the hope from last summer that Seattle could be a playoff team in Year 1.

From the start, Seattle cautioned it was not going to be like the Vegas Golden Knights and that warning has proved to be correct. Seattle is essentially what expansion teams are supposed to be, not the outlier Vegas proved to be in its first season.

The Kraken are 15-27-4 at the All-Star Break, although they won five of nine going into the break. They’re 15th of 16 teams in the Western Conference. The hopes of the playoffs were waning even before a nine-game losing streak in December and January as Seattle went more than a month between victories and six weeks without a win at home.

No one has questioned how hard the Kraken have played or the challenge in facing them. But the slightest mistake, especially early in the season, usually spelled disaster.

“We feel like our purpose is there on a night-to-night basis. There’s still going to be ups and downs within that … we’ve really had that over the last month whether the results have been there or not,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “For us to win, all the pieces have to be in place. Let’s call it what it is. We own that and we should be excited about that. Everybody in our room has to contribute on a nightly basis.”

From a historical standpoint, Seattle and its 34 points after 46 games is on par with most of the expansion teams that have entered the league since 1991 not named Vegas.

The Golden Knights had a whopping 66 points in their first 46 games in 2017-18. Columbus (34 points), Minnesota (40) and Atlanta (30) all played their first seasons under the current point system and fell in the range of where Seattle is now.

Florida had 49 points in 46 games in its inaugural season in 1993-94 under the NHL’s old points system.

“There’s probably a couple of games or a period or so here where I haven’t been happy with it,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “But I think for the most part we’ve come and we’ve tried to work and do what we can to win hockey games. And unfortunately we haven’t been rewarded as much as I would like and I’m sure as much as the players would like.”

Until a recent turnaround, the inconsistency was among the more frustrating aspects of Seattle’s first couple of months. When the goaltending and defense were superb, the Kraken failed to score goals.

On the nights the Kraken got some goals, their defense and goaltending leaked.

“When we made a mistake, we tended to make a beauty, and gave up a breakaway or two-on-one or some kind of scoring position that was much more difficult for our goaltenders,” Francis said.

Even when their goaltenders haven’t been put in tough spots, the netminders struggled for the better part of three months. Philipp Grubauer is 5-2 with a 2.14 goals-against in his last seven games going into the break, but overall has yet to live up to his $35 million contract. Backup Chris Driedger has been slowed all season by a couple of nagging injuries and a stint in COVID-19 protocol.

“I think going into the season we felt strongly about our goaltending and still feel we’ve got good goaltending,” Francis said. “It just hasn’t gone that way for us or for them to this point.”

The Kraken will be closely watched as the trade deadline approaches in March. Will they offload veterans for younger prospects, draft picks and cap space? Will they try to poach other sellers and teams with cap issues to gather possible core pieces moving forward?

Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Johansson, Riley Sheahan, Colin Blackwell and Giordano are all in the last year of their current deals before becoming unrestricted free agents. But seemingly anyone on the Seattle roster could be available and Francis sees salary cap space now and in the future as a valuable commodity.

“I think we’re getting a clearer picture of what we have and where we might need to head in,” Francis said. “Certainly that’s something that we look at as we get to the trade deadline, we look at as we get to the amateur draft, we look at as we get to free agency and as we head into next season for sure.”