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Seaworthy: Pre-Season Wrap-Up

The 6-game shakedown cruise of the NHL’s newest franchise went very well.

Seattle Kraken forward Nathan Bastian (14) celebrates scoring a goal along the bench with his teammates. Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Kraken wrapped up their pre-season on Tuesday with a 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. The Kraken finished with four wins and two losses, scoring 15 goals but allowing 17. Now that we’re done with exhibition games, it’s time to take a look at how things went, who did well, who didn’t, and what surprises popped up in the process.

There are two philosophies about pre-season. One is, it doesn’t matter — this is the time to experiment and see what works, and if mistakes are going to be made this is the time to do it. The other is that it matters a lot — a good pre-season means a good start to the regular season, and a good start is crucial to your playoff hopes. Whichever of these two philosophies you subscribe to, there was something to ease your fears about the Kraken’s upcoming inaugural season.

On The Offensive

The interview with Kraken Head Coach Dave Hakstol that aired on ROOT Sports before the Vancouver game on Tuesday was very revealing about how he expects his team to behave when not in possession of the puck. Essentially his strategy is, always attack. When you do not have the puck, your primary job is to get the puck. Put pressure on the opponent’s puck carrier no matter where he is on the ice, and cut off passing lanes to reduce his outlet options. The team has bought into that system, and not only is it working, it’s very exciting to watch.

Two men forechecking, even when we’re short-handed. Getting pucks in deep and cycling along the half-boards. Physical play below the goal line in the attacking zone. Harassing opposing forwards as they head up-ice. Forcing mistakes that lead to turnovers in all three zones. It’s all part of a plan to regain control of the puck, preferably before the opposing team gets past the red line. Hakstol is attempting a full-throttle implementation of a 200-foot defense, and it is already paying dividends.

Among the forward ranks, the biggest production thus far has come from the line of Jared McCann, Jaden Schwartz, and Jordan Eberle. This trio didn’t play every outing, but was still responsible for 5 of the 15 goals the Kraken scored in pre-season. It’s safe to say this is the de facto top line to start the year, and if they continue to perform at this pace it will give Coach Hakstol quite a headache deciding whether or not to break them up when Yanni Gourde returns.

In the bottom-six, the line of Brandon Tanev, Nathan Bastian, and Riley Sheahan — wearing jersey numbers 13, 14, and 15 respectively — saw early and continued success during their time together. Hard checks, consistent pressure, and terrier-like back-checking will be the calling card for this line throughout the year. The pre-season wasn’t even one period old before these three had the Canucks’ defense in panic mode trying to maintain control in their own zone, and let’s not forget the history-making goal below.

Young And Restless

Two young skaters made the biggest impression during pre-season. Morgan Geekie has shown maturity and poise playing center in the middle-six so far, and has been dominant at the face-off dot most nights. And while the expansion draft selection of defenseman William Borgen from the Buffalo Sabres raised a chorus of, “Who?” it’s now easy to see why the Kraken plucked him from that beleaguered roster. Borgen looks like he’s been in the NHL for 10 years, with terrific positional play, good decision-making in his own zone, an excellent first pass, and decent speed. He’s competing for the seventh defenseman spot on the roster, and he’s made a strong case that the job should be his.

NHL: Preseason-Seattle Kraken at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking between the pipes for minute; while starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer picked up where he left off last season, the most noteworthy netminder over the past two weeks was youngster Joey Daccord. With only nine NHL games to his credit, and playing for the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators, it was hard to get a read on Daccord merely from his stats — is he just on a bad team, or does he actually suck? The Kraken scouting staff plainly knew the answer to this question, and we are seeing what happens when you take a talented netminder from a team gasping for air every night and put him on one with a proper defensive corps and some goal support. Daccord’s performance was nothing short of outstanding, and he was without question the most pleasant surprise of pre-season.

Solid PK, Inconsistent PP

The Kraken got a lot of practice on special teams over the course of pre-season. Fortunately they drew more penalties than they took, and the penalty killing units looked good — killing 18 of 21 penalties, an 85% effectiveness rate. Two of those goals against came in the 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Edmonton, on a night when a good percentage of the Kraken roster consisted of rookies. So there is a lot to like about to the PK units, and hopefully they continue their solid play as the regular season begins.

On the other side of the special teams units, we have to scratch below the statistical surface when we look at the power play. The top-line number is pretty impressive, with 7 goals in 27 power plays resulting in a 26% conversion rate — which would have placed the Kraken third in the league in 2020-21. But that number is not what it appears to be.

This is the story of two power plays — the PP against Calgary and Edmonton, and the PP against Vancouver. Against the Canucks the Kraken scored 5 goals in 12 attempts; against the Flames and Oilers, it was just 2 goals in 15 attempts. 41.6% versus 13.3%. This shows pretty clearly that the Kraken have work to do to increase effectiveness and consistency with the extra man.

Room For Improvement

Another area where I think Coach Hakstol will be experiencing some uneasiness is depth scoring. In six games we would hope to see a good number of forwards, especially the veterans, chipping in on the scoresheet. Out of 15 goals scored, 5 came from the top line, 4 from defensemen Mark Giordano (1) and Vince Dunn (3), meaning the rest of the forward corps chipped in a mere 6 tallies. The Kraken will want to see more offensive output from the likes of Alex Wennberg, Joonas Donskoi, Calle Järnkrok, Brandon Tanev, and Marcus Johansson, none of whom put up a goal during pre-season.

On the blue line, the only real issue — and a small one at that — is some questionable decision-making by Jamie Oleksiak. At 6’7” and 255 lbs., Oleksiak is the Herkimer Battle Jitney of defensemen: big and strong, but considerably slower than attacking forwards. This allows him to grind pesky forecheckers into mulch; but it also hampers his efforts to get back into position if he pinches too deep. Yet, on more than one occasion, there was Oleksiak down below the hash marks in the attacking zone, resulting in at least one odd-man rush towards his own goal. His leash may be shortened for the regular season, but this is something to keep an eye on.

And, yes, now we have to talk about the underwhelming performance of goaltender Chris Driedger. He had 3 outings in the 6-game pre-season schedule, giving up 10 goals on 44 shots in (roughly) 130 minutes of play. That converts to a .772 save percentage and an ECHL-worthy 4.61 GAA. Safe to say this was not the level of play that Kraken GM Ron Francis envisioned when he signed Driedger to a 3-year, $3.5 million AAV contract this summer. He should disabuse himself of any illusions he may have been harboring of being the “1-B” in a goalie tandem with Philipp Grubauer, as Driedger’s performance has dictated that he is firmly entrenched in the backup netminder role for now.

Here’s where we need to adjust our thinking a little bit. I was not a fan of the Driedger signing — not enough of a track record to justify that money for that term — but sign him we did. Like him or hate him, Driedger is ours. The thing to remember is, this was only pre-season. The chalkboard gets erased before we open the regular season on Tuesday; everyone gets a fresh start. The team, and the fans, need to support Driedger while he works out the kinks and finds his game again. He’s aware of the problem, and isn’t shy about admitting it, even in post-game interviews.

Question Marks

As mentioned earlier, we did not get a look at marquee forward Yanni Gourde in any of the pre-season action, but he remains ahead of schedule to return from shoulder surgery. He is no longer wearing the red “no contact” jersey in practice, and the ferocity of his slap shot in practice videos illustrates that his rehab is progressing nicely.

We also did not see Colin Blackwell during pre-season, as he works his way back from an upper-body injury. Currently he is listed as day-to-day, but he has been classified that way for two full weeks with no apparent progress and no timeline for his return. I would think this hurts his chances to crack the lineup anytime in the near future. Unless he shows progress this week he will likely join Gourde on injured reserve.

And whither Antoine Bibeau? The summer free-agent signing didn’t even dress for a pre-season game, let alone man the pipes, and was sent down to Charlotte after clearing waivers. One would think that if the Kraken were counting on Bibeau to contribute in a meaningful way in the event of injury to either Grubauer, Driedger, or Daccord, they would want to get a look at him in an NHL setting. Apparently that wasn’t a priority for the club this time around, which is somewhat puzzling.

But probably the biggest question mark as we inch towards opening night is the situation on the Kraken’s blue line. As of this writing there are nine defenders on the Kraken roster — two more than a team normally carries for the regular season. Youngster Dennis Cholowski is pretty much a lock to be sent down, but of the remaining eight it remains difficult to pin down who might be shipped to the minors.

We can count on Giordano, Oleksiak, Dunn, and Adam Larsson staying with the club. Carson Soucy is also highly likely to be kept on the roster, leaving Haydn Fleury, William Borgen, and Jérémy Lauzon. The big hurdle here is waivers: no matter which of those three is sent down, they have to clear waivers first. Due to the high level of talent and low salary numbers for each of them, there is a high probability of them being claimed. That would hamper the team’s depth on defense going forward, never mind the fact that we would be losing a marketable asset for nothing.

There is another option, which is to trade somebody. That possibility has been tossed around in media circles since pre-season began, though it’s difficult to predict which (if any) teams would be in the market for a young defenseman before the regular season kicks off. Those teams also know the bind the Kraken are in with waivers, and might just roll the dice on a waiver claim instead of paying the asking price. The other possibility is that the Kraken simply carry eight defensemen to start the year. But that complicates things on the front end, as it means you can keep one fewer forward with an active roster limit of 23. This is a pretty pickle, and GM Ron Francis has his hands full trying to sort this out.

On (To) The Regular

So now what? Well, a lot, actually — and you can get it all here at Davy Jones’ Locker Room. We have a season preview on tap for you on Friday, coverage of any roster moves that happen between now and opening day, and a look at the Vegas Golden Knights before the season opener on the October 12th.

Be sure and follow us on Twitter for the up-to-the-minute news, and check back here daily for in-depth coverage of your Seattle Kraken.