Game Preview: Seattle Kraken vs. Minnesota Wild

It has been a challenging week for Seattle Kraken fans. The team has racked up three straight losses, bringing the total to five out of the club’s last six games, and dumping Seattle down to the basement of the Pacific Division. Tonight they face the Minnesota Wild (get to know the team here), a team they beat in decisive fashion on October 28th. Will this be the key to the Kraken getting things back on the right track?

That’s going to be a tough hill to climb.

Tops In The Central

Minnesota is 9-4-0 on the season, tied for the Central Division lead. The Wild are coming off a loss to the Vegas Golden Knights as they continue a west coast road trip, but just prior to that they notched four straight wins, tallying five goals in every one of those games. The Wild are winning with offense, and with Seattle’s shaky goaltending and sporadic defensive lapses, Minnesota is on track to continue their scoring onslaught.

This isn’t a Toronto or Edmonton situation either, where neutralizing two players will stymie the team’s scoring capability. Minnesota is built like Seattle — scoring by committee — with 12 players notching at least 2 goals in the 13 games so far this season. The big output comes from the usual suspects: Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno. But even if you’re able to minimize their impact, anyone else in their top nine could be stepping up.

One name to pay particular attention to is winger Ryan Hartman, who has wrapped himself up in his shiny new contract extension and made it his job to rain chaos down on the Western Conference. Hartman has 7 goals and an assist to start the season, maintaining a team-leading plus-8 rating, averaging over 3 shots on goal per game, and continuing to be a serious pain in the ass.

The good news is, Minnesota’s goaltending is not setting the world on fire. Both starter Cam Talbot and young backup Kaapo Kahkonen are in the middle of the pack among the league’s netminders, with one sitting on either side of a 3.00 GAA and .900 save percentage. So if the Kraken can get their offensive mojo going, we can hope the contest turns into a shooting gallery and we squeak out a 7-6 win. The Wild are taking 5 more shots per game than they allow, so Seattle forwards definitely have their work cut out for them.

Finding Ways To Lose

On the Kraken side of things, Seattle has handed wins to three of its Western Conference rivals in the last week. Whether they score first, jump out to a 2-goal lead, fight back from a 2-goal deficit, or never get the offense into gear, the Kraken seem to be finding new and inventive ways to lose.

That’s not to say the news is all bad. There are some players who are going above and beyond, even during this losing streak. Jordan Eberle has six goals in his last four games; Yanni Gourde, two goals in his last three outings; and Jared McCann returned from a 10-day COVID-19 protocol stint with a pair of goals against Anaheim.

But unfortunately the bad outweighs the good at present. Brandon Tanev, who started off the year on a tear, has regressed to the mean with just two assists in his last six tilts. The defense was contributing points from the blue line at the start of the year, that has also subsided. Which brings us to goaltending…

Goal Support

When you watch one or two games and get caught up in the immediate comparison of Our Team vs. The Other Team, you forget that the immediate comparison is not the issue. In order to make the playoffs, Our Team has to be better, on average, in the important categories, over the full season, than greater than 50% of The Other Teams in our division. Last game, this game, next game, in the long run each of those individual contests is immaterial; what we want to see is improvement above and beyond our division rivals. So let’s take a look at where we are, and see how far we have to go.

Before I pounce on the number of goals our goalies are letting in, let’s look at the opposite stat: what kind of goal support is our team giving its netminders? Over 14 games our Seattle Kraken have 40 goals. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s actually 11th in the entire league, and 3rd in the Pacific Division behind Edmonton and Anaheim (Vegas is 14th). We had 4 empty-netters in there, which prompts us to look at goals 5-on-5, where we rank even better: 7th overall, 3rd in the Pacific.

For you stats wonks, we are also in the top half of the league in all five of the following categories: shots for, shots attempted, shots attempted differential, unblocked shot attempts for, and unblocked shot attempts differential. Those are all big surprises to me, and I’ve watched and dissected every game the club has played. So if we’re doing so well in the offense department, why the hell are we losing?

You Have One Job

Goals against: 3rd worst.

Goals against 5-on-5: 2nd worst.

Goals against average: 2nd worst.

Starting to see a pattern?

Three goalies have manned the nets for Seattle. Their save percentages are .833, .855, and .882 respectively. Philipp Grubauer has taken 11 of the Kraken’s 14 starts, so he’s the focus of attention as he is likely to man the pipes this evening against Minnesota. League-wide, there are 45 goalies who have 4 or more starts. Of those, Grubauer’s .882 save percentage ranks him dead last. With the Kraken’s offensive stats in the top half of the league, this makes it crystal clear where the problem is.

If you dive into the advanced stats world you come across a lot of “expected” labels — expected goals, expected goals against, etc. There is a methodology for calculating these (which I will pick apart at a later time) but the thing to remember is, every player is judged by the same criteria. Given that, the following graphic tells me everything I need to know about our Grubauer’s performance so far: with identifiable exceptions, it has been horrific.

I’ll be the meanie and come straight out and say it: the Kraken have placed their fate in the hands of Philipp Grubauer, and he is failing — completely, and spectacularly. He has one job, and he’s not doing it. I don’t know what the answer is here: punishment? sabbatical? juice cleanse? new puppy? Whatever it is, it needs to be done, immediately. The rest of the team is doing everything they can to win games, and the statistics are showing that. Continuing to put faith in the “it’s gotta get better some time” philosophy is a recipe for missing the playoffs.

Neither Chris Driedger nor Joey Daccord has shown that they are capable of doing any better, so if Grubauer’s performance does not improve, soon, it’s time to consider drastic alternatives. Grubauer has to start earning the $6 million Seattle is paying him, and more importantly, earning the “GRUUUUUUUUUU” cheers he gets from the fans at Climate Pledge Arena. Otherwise this team’s first season is going to be embarrassingly bad.

Game time is 7:00 PST at CPA. TV coverage locally on ROOT Sports NW; out-of-market viewers can see the game on ESPN+. Radio listeners (I know there are some of you still out there) can tune in on 950 AM KJR; SiriusXM listeners will find the game on channel 219.