The first game for any franchise is guaranteed to be memorable. This is the moment that fans have been waiting years for. It all builds up to this. The focus is going to be all on the Kraken for this shining moment.
The NHL, though, didn’t just assign the Kraken an opening night opponent all willy-nilly in light of that. Yes, it’s the Kraken’s night, but the only thing that could top the narrative of “Seattle’s NHL debut” is the narrative of “Seattle has to immediately prove itself against the best expansion story in men’s sports history.” No pressure or anything.
Before the puck drops, it’s time to familiarize ourselves with the enemy and get an idea of what the Kraken are up against as they play against the Golden Knights at “The Fortress” (as T-Mobile Arena has been dubbed by Vegas fans).
Vegas’ 2021-22 season expectations
The Vegas Golden Knights have spent four straight seasons making it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s every season that they’ve been in the league, just so you know. Naturally, everyone is high on their chances for more of the same. When looking at various predictions, it’s almost consistent that people expect Vegas to win the Pacific Division. (Yes, if you’re reading all our pieces, you probably saw this chart yesterday, but JFresh made my job easier by posting this.)
Standings Projections: Pacific Division— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 8, 2021
Here's how predictive models, oddsmakers, and fans project the 2021-22 Pacific Division standings: pic.twitter.com/KvsGLLaVwn
Note the various sources these predictions come from, too. Sometimes fan perception can greatly differ from what statistical analysis produces. (Just look at the difference between the fan vote for Seattle and every other source.) Yet, it’s agreed both statistically and by fans that Vegas is here to compete. Let me repeat that again: it’s not easy to find consensus in these things! Vegas has that level of near-consensus. If there’s any dissent in opinion, it’s in terms of just how good Vegas is going to be. No one is arguing that they’re a team that’s going to miss the playoffs. Now, it’s hockey, and stranger things have happened (such as said team making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in its first season), but sometimes common sense and logic prevail over the inherent chaos that hockey as a sport brings.
Vegas offseason recap
This perception of Vegas being one of the best of the best is strong even after a few headscratcher moves this offseason. They traded away Marc-André Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks for Mikael Hakkarainen, who was shortly put on waivers for contract termination by Vegas. So, in other words, they gave up the most recent Vezina Trophy winner and the heart and soul of their franchise for nothing but cap space relief. The sad logic in the move is that it’s a sign of the flat cap ceiling that has been brought on because of the pandemic. Teams have a budget (the cap ceiling) and cannot spend more than that. General managers across the league are accustomed to that spending limit raising every year, so they have often signed contracts with that expectation in mind. With no raise on the horizon due now, it makes affording for every player to stay on the roster that much harder. Even in light of that justification, this was still a move that dealt a crushing blow to a fanbase that wished goalies could become team captains, because “Flower” was theirs in name only.
Vegas was also involved in a three-way-trade that saw budding prospect Cody Glass sent off to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Nolan Patrick, 2017’s second-overall draft pick, from the Philadelphia Flyers. Patrick is a highly divisive player within the Philadelphia fanbase due to not matching initial expectations in his first two seasons, missing the entirety of the 2019-2020 campaign due to a migraine disorder, and struggling to bounce back to form after that extended absence of play within a completely abnormal 2020-2021 season. Is he a “bust” as some Flyers fans seem to proclaim, or is he a player that could benefit from a change of scenery and some further patience to finally blossom into his initial potential? Vegas seems to believe in the latter.
Additionally, Vegas signed Laurent Brossoit as a backup goaltender, who hit free agency from the Winnipeg Jets. They also traded away Ryan Reaves, who is known for his physical presence and affinity for dropping the gloves, to the New York Rangers for a 2022 3rd round draft pick. (This trade, though, was more for the sake of the Rangers, who were looking for their answer to the Capitals’ Tom Wilson after that Metropolitan Division showdown took a turn for the ugly last season.)
After all these moves, the main core of the Golden Knights is intact. So, this is still a team for whom the goal is Stanley Cup or bust. After setting the bar high in their initial season, being eliminated in earlier rounds of the playoffs feels akin to missing the playoffs entirely for this team and this fanbase. Failure is not an option.
Players to watch
Captain Mark Stone is the rare winger that’s consistently in talks to win the Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best defensive forward. It’s an award usually given to centers (see: Alexander Barkov, Sean Couturier, and Ryan O’Rielly as the past three winners) because of the inherent additional defensive responsibility being a center requires. Yet, Mark Stone is in this group because he has the uncanny ability on defense to pickpocket the puck away from the opponent and immediately turn it back into offensive opportunities.
Alex Pietrangelo was highly coveted as he hit free agency last season, and for good reason. He had captained the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup win in 2019, and was proven to be a valuable offensive defenseman, eclipsing the 40 point mark in 8 of his 10 full seasons to that point (and one of those he that he fell short in was the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, so that can’t be held against him). During his first season in Vegas, he earned 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) in 41 games - which in a full season would’ve kept him on pace toward 46 points. He’s another valuable two-way player to keep an eye on when playing against Vegas.
It’s going to be an interesting season for Robin Lehner, and not just because he’s taking to Twitter to call out the NHL on its issues with team medical practices and drug (ab)use. Without Fleury, the starting goaltending position is fully his. With shouldering this larger responsibility, we’ll get to see if Vegas really made the right move here. Though they’ll probably be okay, because Lehner’s a strong enough goaltender that he has challenged Fleury’s role on the depth chart in the past—to the point of Fleury’s agent taking to Twitter with a wild image in reaction to his client not starting games during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In a normal game preview article, this would be where I type out projected lineups, and everything is neat and tidy. Well, this is not a normal circumstance. Trying to fully predict the Kraken’s lines right now as I write this is a bit of a challenge. The opening night roster is a bit different than expected after announcements about COVID-19 protocols:
The NHL media site has the Kraken roster -— Marisa Ingemi (@Marisa_Ingemi) October 12, 2021
F: Appleton, Barre-Boulet, Bastian, Donato, Eberle, Geekie, Johansson, Lind, Schwartz, Sheahan, Tanev, True, Wennberg
D: Borgen. Cholowski, Dunn, Fleury, Giordano, Larsson, Lauzon, Soucy
G: Grubauer, Driedger
It’s interesting to note that Marcus Johansson is still listed here, because on Monday, he was one of four new players that entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols (Jared McCann, Jamie Oleksiak, and Joonas Donskoi were the others). They joined Calle Järnkrok who had entered the protocols on Friday. Yet, his inclusion on this opening roster might be because the Kraken don’t expect him, along with hopefully others, to be on this list for long.
Yanni Gourde going to IR but Marcus Johansson appears ready to exit COVID protocol and play Tuesday for Kraken. Jarnkrok will not play and will be out for 10-day protocol but team hopes some of Donskoi, Oleksiak and McCann might play in Vegas. Crazy day! #SEAKraken #Kraken #NHL— Geoff Baker (@GeoffBakerTIMES) October 12, 2021
So perhaps the Kraken won’t be down as many players as it initially looks like. It’s hard to see now, and things will continue to play out throughout the rest of the day.
As for Vegas, their exact lineup is also in the air. We can at least look at their opening day roster, as reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal:
Golden Knights initial roster
Forwards: William Carrier, Evgenii Dadonov, Pavel Dorofeyev, Jack Dugan, Mattias Janmark, William Karlsson, Keegan Kolesar, Peyton Krebs, Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, Nolan Patrick, Reilly Smith, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone
Defensemen: Dylan Coghlan, Nic Hague, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud
Goaltenders: Laurent Brossoit and Robin Lehner
However, they are also running into their own issues with Janmark being on the COVID-19 protocol and Carrier in concussion protocol, as per Jesse Granger of the Athletic.
So, what are the expected lineups for these teams? Who can say right now! I’ll probably get home from my day job, turn on the game, and be just as surprised as the rest of you. At least we’re on this roller coaster together.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. Vegas is good. There is no amount I can overstate that.
Even if it turns out the COVID-19 situation with the Kraken is less severe than expected, this is still a team that has only ever played six preseason games together, with line combinations and defensive pairings shuffling around throughout. They also still have Yanni Gourde and Colin Blackwell out due to injury. There are naturally going to be some kinks to work out in the early games. If the Kraken lose their debut, it won’t be a “sky is falling” situation.
However, I don’t want to be completely doom and gloom going into the Kraken’s first game. I don’t think the players themselves want to be either. They understand how important this first game is going to be, not just for themselves but for their new fanbase. Sometimes intangibles play a much larger role in a game than anyone can expect, and storybook-like narratives can spring up. It’s still possible that the Kraken can fight the stacked odds against them and come out of this matchup victorious. It’s just not the most likely outcome - especially if the Kraken are indeed missing many of their expected regulars tonight.
As for larger season-wide predictions? I talked about potential rivalries in my last piece, and while I can’t say for certain how Vegas and their fans will look at Seattle, the truth of the matter is that by being the last two expansion teams, Seattle is going to feel like the “little brother” to Vegas in the eyes of many in the larger hockey world. Younger sibling syndrome comes with always being compared to the older sibling - especially if said big sib was successful - and it can create a lot of resentment. However, if the Kraken can outperform the “big brother,” even if it’s just to take the season series against them, it would be a huge confidence booster going forward. If they don’t, though, it’s going to be extremely frustrating. I feel like if a true two-sided rivalry doesn’t form between these two teams, at the very least Seattle will have a lot of animosity against Vegas - a true reason given to root against them tonight and for the rest of the season.
The first chapter of this potential rivalry - and of the Seattle Kraken’s story as a whole - begins tonight on ESPN at 7:00 PDT / 10:00 EDT.