Our long national nightmare (the NHL’s Christmas break) is over. With the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreading like wildfire through NHL locker rooms, the league and its teams stumbled into what ended up being a prolonged break from action, as team after team shut down with too many players in protocol to compete. With seemingly no other choice, the NHL reluctantly decided to give players a longer-than-expected hiatus. Now, the NHL is back after what feels like [insert “Old Lady from Titanic saying ‘It’s been 84 years’” gif here], so we thought it would be a good time to take stock in what the Seattle Kraken have going on and their outlook for the rest of the season.
Short-term obstacle: COVID absences
Defense situation looked temporarily dire for Kraken
First, we will look at the state of the team in the immediate. The Kraken were certainly one of the clubs running on fumes as they entered the break, with defensemen Jamie Oleksiak, Carson Soucy, and Adam Larsson all testing positive in three consecutive days. Upon returning from the break, Ryan Donato, Mason Appleton, and Vince Dunn were added to that list.
Along with the three blueliners already out, Dunn’s exclusion from the lineup made things appear for a moment like Seattle would not be able to field a full defense corps as it returned to game action.
Thankfully, Soucy and Oleksiak returned to practice on Tuesday, and neither seemed to have been impacted too dramatically by their respective bouts with the virus. Larsson could be cleared to return in the coming days as well.
“Almost a little better timing for me, not really having to miss a game,” Soucy said on Tuesday. “Kind of just come back in when the team comes back. Would have liked maybe one or two more skates, but it’s a good way to get back into it with a copule games in a row here.”
Soucy’s point about timing rings mostly true for Oleksiak and Larsson as well. If Larsson can return in the next couple days, the extended holiday break really will have saved the Kraken a lot of man-games lost on the blue line. Thanks to the extra time, it appears coach Dave Hakstol will have at least three pairs of defensemen available to him for Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, assuming nothing changes throughout the day.
Some COVID challenges remain for forward group as well
There are also issues up front for the Kraken. In the short term, Donato—who had scored in three-straight games prior to the break—is in protocol, as is Appleton. Colin Blackwell and Riley Sheahan are back to fill depth roles, but Blackwell indicated that COVID took a lot out of him, so it may take him some time to get back up to speed.
One big positive (from being COVID negative) is that Yanni Gourde is expected to see his first game action since Dec. 9 on Wednesday. Obviously, getting one of the team’s top two centers back should give the Kraken a lift.
Long-term obstacle: no Turbo
The long-term picture got more murky over the break, as fan favorite and heart-and-soul winger Brandon Tanev was diagnosed with a season-ending ACL injury.
When Tanev was hit by William Lagesson in the closing minutes of Seattle’s Dec. 18 game against Edmonton, he was essentially carried off the ice and down the tunnel, putting almost no weight on his right leg. He was seen flexing his knee as his teammates propelled him toward the bench, and in that moment, you could just tell that it was something serious.
The team then played it even more coy than usual with announcing any kind of timeline, so the result was unsurprising. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept the idea that the forward who has endeared himself to fans more than any other player will not don a Kraken uniform again this season.
Tanev’s absence will be felt in a lot of ways. Players like Blackwell, Sheahan, Alexander True, and Kole Lind, who have all been in and out of the Kraken lineup at times this season, will be expected to help fill the void left by Tanev. None of those players do the things that Tanev does, though, with his lightning-quick speed and unrelenting forecheck, so Turbo’s absence will require an adjustment from the entire team.
State of the Seattle Kraken
Even before Tanev’s injury, the Kraken were in last place in the Pacific Division going into the break. They trailed the Vancouver Canucks for seventh place by seven points, and they were a whopping 13 points out of the playoff picture.
Can Seattle get back in the playoff race?
Pessimists and believers in simple math would say no, they most likely cannot. As of Wednesday, the Kraken were down to a 0.1 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to MoneyPuck.com, the lowest percentage of any team in the NHL, while HockeyViz has them at 8.2 percent. As Lloyd Christmas once said, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
Heck, even the fact that the Canucks are still in seventh place despite being on an active six-game win streak is telling of just how hard it’s going to be for Seattle to get back in this thing.
Optimists will remind you of the St. Louis Blues in 2018-19, when that club went from last in the NHL on New Year’s Day to Stanley Cup winners in June. What happened for that group was a coaching change (no, we are not recommending Seattle make a change in its inaugural season) and a revelation in the goal crease, as Jordan Binnington burst onto the scene and carried his team to glory.
But the circumstances were quite different for that Blues team. They were a veteran club that had made the playoffs six of the previous seven seasons and had added Ryan O’Reilly in the offseason. The Kraken, on the other hand, are a young expansion team.
Goaltending improvement could turn this around
A Blues-esque goaltending improvement is what could actually unlock sustained success for the Kraken, but it would have to come from their existing netminders. It’s no secret that Kraken goaltending has been among the worst in the league through December in most metrics. With those struggles came visible slumps in play from Seattle when soft goals would go in practically every night.
We’re still hopeful this can turn around, however, and we still believe that the Kraken have an excellent tandem in the crease. Chris Driedger played well in games leading to the holiday break, and Philipp Grubauer, who took a long time to adjust when he first arrived in Colorado in 2018-19, will figure it out. He has played well below his career numbers to this point, so improvement for him is bound to happen.
With their netminders hopefully recharged after a long pause, will that improvement come now? We will get a good idea in the coming days, as Seattle dives back in head first with three games in four days to turn over the calendar year.