With the NHL All-Star break in the rearview mirror, we thought it would be a good time for a roundtable discussion to get the staff’s takes on the biggest surprises and disappointments and the favorite on- and off-ice moments of this inaugural Seattle Kraken season.
We also want to welcome Curtis (Curtiz?) Isacke to the team, as he will be contributing around these parts moving forward. We are pumped to have him helping out!
Ok, let’s get to it.
Darren Brown: I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the play of Ryan Donato this season. After being cast off from three different organizations including not being tendered a qualifying offer by the Sharks last season, this was a real “prove it” campaign for the 25-year-old winger.
After being a healthy scratch in the early stages of the season, he’s played himself into a solid role, done everything asked of him, and has notched a respectable nine goals and seven assists in 41 games. He will again be a restricted free agent after this season, but I would be surprised if the Kraken were to follow San Jose’s lead in not giving him a qualifying offer.
Andy Eide: Mine could probably fit in the “disappointment” category, but the fact that Joonas Donskoi has one goal and needed 44 games to get it is a surprise. ‘Baffling’ might be a better word than ‘surprising.’ Donskoi has scored double-digit goals in each of his last four seasons, and you would have penciled him in for seven or eight by this point. This isn’t a diss on him since he’s contributed in a number of other areas. He has 14 assists which is the same he had last season in Colorado. He’s been a monster on the penalty kill and is driving play.
It’s also not like he didn’t create chances in the first half. He’s had a number of near misses, great goalie saves against, and some bad luck.
With half a season to go, hopefully the goal he scored in Boston will open up the floodgates. He’s always been a streaky scorer, but nobody could have foreseen it taking 40-plus games for him to find a goal.
Curtis Isacke: If I’m being honest in my initial reaction to this prompt, my biggest “surprise” is the same as Darren’s answer to the question about the biggest disappointment (stay tuned).
But, in terms of a “pleasant” surprise, I’ll stretch a bit and go with the early returns on the Kraken’s first amateur draft class. Second overall pick centerman Matty Beniers is tied for seventh in goals scored and fouth in points in all of Division I NCAA hockey. Elite Prospects recently ranked him as the second most valuable forward based on a broad (but not complete) dataset of NCAA Division I hockey prospects, delivering solid play-driving analytics on offense and defense, and measuring as truly elite in the transition game.
Second-round defenseman Ryker Evans leads all WHL defenders in scoring and looks capable of providing the offensive defenseman and power play quarterback projection Seattle Kraken management put on him–despite many furrowed brows among media and analysts–on draft day.
Third-round forward Ryan Winterton missed several weeks with injury, but has tallied seven goals and nine assists in eight games since returning to the Hamilton Bulldogs. While the sample size is still small, the two-point-per-game pace is second in the OHL. And, even beyond those three, there are some strong performances farther down the board too. For example, seventh-round goaltender Semyon Vyzaovoi is third in his 33-team Russian junior league (MHL) in save percentage (among goaltenders with more than 15 starts).
John Barr: This is a little off the board, but I am going with the free agent signing of Marcus Johansson. He has been one of the more versatile forwards on the team and has played up and down the lineup. Johansson is steady and reliable no matter where he plays. Sure, he is not flashy, but the team has needed him to backfill all over this lineup as injuries and COVID raged through the roster. Like Donato, he was a late free agent signing on a reasonable salary, and I have appreciated his contributions.
DB: I can’t believe the organization had to play the “team puppy” card this early on. To me, that’s a card that is reserved for the most desperate of times, but with the team in last place, the Kraken apparently determined that the situation was dire enough that it called for the introduction of Davy Jones. *Author’s note: Please understand I am only kidding and got to boop Davy on Tuesday, and he is the cutest.
Ok, but seriously… It’s impossible to overlook what has happened in the Kraken goalcrease. After Philipp Grubauer signed his big free-agent deal, we truly believed that with Chris Driedger already in the fold, Seattle would have one of the top tandems in the NHL. Obviously, things haven’t played out this way in the first half of this season, but recent returns have been far more favorable. Let’s hope that continues in the second half, and those two can build something positive going into next season.
CI: I agree with Darren that Grubauer’s play has been the most notable player disappointment on the Kraken. I was a bit nervous in the offseason when the team committed so much of its cap space to two goaltenders, given the inherent variability of goaltender performance. I talked myself into the signing a bit on the premise that the team understood the studies and signed two goaltenders coming off of stellar seasons in order to create redundancy and better protect them against a regression. Saying all of that, I’m bewildered by Seattle’s goaltender performance overall, and in particular the play of Grubauer. I was concerned that the goalie situation might be overpriced but average in production. Never did I consider that at the unofficial halfway mark, Grubauer would have registered the single worst goaltender season in the league by some advanced and standard metrics.
But he is hardly alone in returning disappointing on-ice play in the first half. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that every aspect of the team, aside from even-strength team defense, has fallen short of expectations. And Darren has already covered Grubauer.
So, I’ll go “off the board” again and say this: It’s a shame that this inaugural season has been impacted by COVID, leaving many people I know nervous or unwilling to go out and see a Kraken game at Climate Pledge Arena. Everything about the experience is phenomenal, but I sense there is a certain unrestrained jubilance missing. I really hope we can get back to that place within the next year (or at least sometime?).
AE: There was a lot of speculation as to who would be the breakout player for the Kraken. Which guy would emerge with a bigger chance and explode to career highs because of it? Through the first 30 games it looked like that was going to be Brandon Tanev. He was the high-energy player, the fan favorite, and was on pace to set a new career high in goals. Tanev was even a must-see during pre-game warmups.
Then he got injured to the point where his season was done. Not only were the Kraken robbed of a productive player, but the city lost its first face of the franchise, one that brought cheers from the Climate Pledge Arena crowd with every mad dash down the ice.
JB: He is one of my favorite players on the team, but I was expecting a breakout season for Morgan Geekie. We have been tracking Geekie for some time and know what he can do on the ice, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. He had a big goal in the opening game in Vegas and appeared to be a scoring threat that the Kraken desperately needed this season. Since that opener, he only has two goals in 39 games and has been given a reduced role as of late with a couple games as a healthy scratch.
I still like Geekie’s potential, but he appears to be a season or two away from being that scoring threat we anticipated. At 23, Geekie is the youngest forward on the Kraken’s NHL roster, so he has time.
Favorite on-ice moment
DB: It’s odd to select a moment from pre-season, but the first “home” game in Spokane was something I’ll never forget. The roar of the crowd and the insanely loud “Let’s go, Kraken!” chant as the puck dropped for the first time sent shivers down my spine. I remember looking over at Andy, and saying, “Oh, that gave me chills,” and he said, “Yeah, me too!” What an awesome memory.
JB: I attended the first game in Vegas and the first victory in Nashville, but nothing compares to opening night at home. I had goosebumps all night and may or may not have shed a couple tears that night. The whole event exceeded my expectations, but hearing the throngs of fans cheering for an NHL team in Seattle was something I dreamed about many times. It was literally the moment when my dream came true.
CI: The first Kraken game I saw in person was the preseason game up in Everett. And that one had an exhilarating last minute of regulation time.
But, like John, there is only one answer for me. It was the night of the inaugural home opener, and the final seconds of a scoreless first period were melting away in a protracted corner puck battle in the Canucks zone. The Kraken were playing well, and the atmosphere was charged in the building, just waiting for a release.
Finally, with about nine seconds remaining, the puck broke free and landed on Joonas Donskoi’s stick. He filtered the puck from low to high (as the Kraken are wont to do), getting it to Adam Larsson at the blue line, who quickly moved it to his partner, Vince Dunn. Dunn rotated a bit to change the angle, deked to shake loose the Canucks player, and snapped a wrist shot past Thatcher Demko. This sent 17,151 Seattleites to a cacophonous nirvana (pun intended).
Yes, I know the Kraken lost that night. But I’ll carry that moment with me for a long time. It’s everything hockey in Seattle can be and will be.
There’s no place like home 🦑— Hockey Night in Canada (@hockeynight) October 24, 2021
Vince Dunn scored the first-ever goal on home ice for the Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena pic.twitter.com/VgoYipdqrP
AE: Just before the break, the Kraken hosted the Florida Panthers at Climate Pledge Arena. Florida was the best team in the league, and there was not a ton of optimism for a Seattle win before the game started. But the Kraken played well, found some greasy goals, and held a 4-3 lead late in the game. The Panthers went to the power play and pulled Sergei Bobrovsky to make it a six-on-four. They peppered Grubauer and the overwhelming feeling was that they were going to tie the game.
Grubauer stood tall, however, including a save on Anthony Duclair who received a cross-ice pass and was on the doorstep with time and space. The net was wide open, and as Duclair took what was going to be a soul-crushing game-tying goal, Grubauer flew across the crease and got his glove on it.
The crowd erupted and may have given the reaction to Dunn’s home opener goal a run for its money in decibel levels. Calle Jarnkrok scored on the empty net and the Kraken won 5-3.
Favorite off-ice moment
DB: Oh, hey, this one also happened in Spokane!
I also really loved the first night Kraken game ops put their full pre-game show together. We got to view the dry run early during morning skate that day, and seeing the players out on the bench taking it in and applauding after was awesome.
CI: To the extent John Forslund isn’t considered “on the ice,” give me Forslund. He’s a true professional and a gentleman, but also one of the most skilled and informative play-by-play broadcasters in the business. It’s hard to overstate his value to this franchise.
As the rest of the ROOT Sports broadcast searched for its footing initially, he was a steadying influence. And now, even on a night when the team is struggling, he’ll provide better entertainment and hockey education than you’ll find anywhere else on your television. Plus, the man can call a goal. We’re lucky to have him. (The rest of the team broadcasters are pretty darn good too. The Kraken have a good thing going on their broadcasts.)
Honorable mention to Gourds with Gourde.
JB: The fish toss after Kraken home victories. That is something unique in Seattle about Seattle. I’ve been to over 20 arenas across the league, and I always love the arenas that do something unique to their city. Nashville, Boston, and Tampa all jump to mind as unique experiences where you know exactly where you are when you are watching a game in those arenas. The CPA experience still needs some development to make it feel like a true Seattle experience, but the fish toss is unique and will never be replicated outside this city.
AE: The Kraken hit a homerun with the opening of the Kraken Community Iceplex. With three rinks, the Iceplex is a hockey gem, right in the city. Yes, it’s the practice rink for the team, but it’s a hockey mecca, the only rinks in city limits, and is more than just a practice facility.
The place is a palace, and no matter what time it is, there are activities and people utilizing it. Public skating, youth hockey, curling, figure skating, and a pub, the Iceplex has everything, and hockey is right at the center of it all. The Kraken promised they were going to help build the sport here and they’re doing that with their practice facility.
Second half bold prediction
DB: I really hope I’m right about this, but both Grubauer and Driedger will be around a .920 save percentage in the second half. Please let me be right about this.
CI: Looking at the ages and contracts on this team, there is only one conclusion: this group of Kraken players is a bridge team. If a player isn’t a core piece that could be around in the next era of Kraken hockey, try to trade him. For the right offer, I’d trade virtually any player not named McCann or Dunn. Of course, there are many Kraken players that are not realistically movable, but any and all marginal candidates should be on the table.
I’m going to recklessly predict three trades: (1) Mark Giordano, (2) one of Calle Jarnkrok or Colin Blackwell, and (3) an additional trade taking on a hefty (but expiring) contract with an extra draft asset attached.
If a “hockey trade” is possible, a realistic target I’d be interested in taking a flyer on is Bruins winger Jake Debrusk (particularly if he gets the Jay Leach stamp of approval that other former Bruins have received).
JB: The Kraken get over 50 percent of the remaining points on the schedule. Driedger and Grubauer have stabilized in net lately. Meanwhile the skaters in front of them have been playing well, going 5-5-0 over the last ten. Once they get Jamie Oleksiak, Carson Soucy, and Jaden Schwartz back from injury, they should finish the season strong.
AE: I have two predictions that may or may not be considered ‘bold.’ First, the Kraken will continue their strong play of late and put together some wins in the second half. They start five points behind the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference standings, and not only will Seattle catch and pass the Blackhawks but will make a run at the Winnipeg Jets, who are nine points ahead.
Second, the Kraken power play, which has been quite bad, is in a 3-for-40 slump. Over the second half they will score at least 10 power-play goals. You heard it here first.
Now it is your turn, what would be your responses to these questions? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.