With the season opener only a week away, we felt the time was nigh to take stock in what we’ve seen from the Seattle Kraken in preseason and training camp and look ahead to which players will be impactful in the team’s second year.
Our own Darren Brown and Curtis Isacke got together for a written discussion that assigns predictive superlatives to certain members of the team.
Darren Brown – I think there are two obvious answers for this first one, but I’ll say the one I think is most conspicuous and important and see if Curtis takes the bait for the other one.
The Kraken need Philipp Grubauer to be better this season, no doubt, but it also feels like this is an extremely safe bet for a player that will be much improved compared to 2021-22.
There were 53 goalies that played at least 25 NHL games last season. Of those 53 goalies, Grubauer ranked 53rd in save percentage at .889, yet his career save percentage is .914. In 2020-21 in Colorado, he was outstanding with a .922 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. He may not return to that level, but last season is certainly an outlier when you consider his body of work.
What’s really encouraging on the Grubauer front, though, is that he has looked confident and solid in training camp and preseason. He has said positive things about working with new goalie coach Steve Briere, and in a game and a half of preseason action, he has not allowed a goal.
Even a mediocre season for Grubauer could mean a lot more wins for the Kraken.
Curtis Isacke – I know I’m inviting a rejoinder from the perspective of a goaltender, but, from the outside, large variations in goaltender performance from season to season are not atypical. And precedent suggests we should see a very large bounceback from Seattle’s German-born netminder. Given the incredible importance of goalie play to wins and losses, Grubauer is a good choice, Darren, and probably the right one.
Beyond Grubauer, there are several candidates that underperformed last year and could be expected to “improve” this season. Joonas Donskoi is particularly notable, but I’m not certain he’ll receive the regular ice time this season necessary to facilitate a rebound.
So, if we’re talking about statistical improvement, I’ll go with Alex Wennberg. I thought he had a bit of an up-and-down first year with Seattle, but he certainly was not a bad player by any means. I’m picking him because I think the 28-year-old will be in a prime position to excel this year. On one side, he will have a legitimate top-six scorer in either Andre Burakovsky or Oliver Bjorkstrand (it seems to be trending toward the latter), and on the other side he may be supported by the skating tornado that is Yanni Gourde. After compiling just 37 points last season, I’ll project Wennberg tops 50 points this year (let’s say 12 goals and 43 assists) and, on the defensive end, sheds the ghastly +/- of -26.
I think Matty Beniers is primed to take the biggest leap in terms of overall contribution to the team, but I doubt he’ll exceed or come close to maintaining his point pace from last year over a full 82 games. Jaden Schwartz and Brandon Tanev can certainly be expected to return more value this year, but their situations are injury-related. Who was the second player you were thinking of, Darren? I’ll guess Donskoi.
DB – No rejoinder from me. Growing up as a goalie, I would stink one year and be great the next. It just happens. And Donskoi is correct. Good guess.
Surprise player to “take a step”
CI – When I think about a player “taking a step,” I think of a young player developing and improving at the NHL level. With the Kraken short on such players – only two likely to have regular roles come to mind – I’ll go with Will Borgen. The 25-year-old defenseman has size and speed and uses his impressive physicality to deny the blue line and clear the goal crease. What’s more encouraging, he showed improved stick skills last year, and that has carried over into camp this season. (There have even been calls for Will Borgen to take a turn in shootouts. I won’t go there, but he has been better.) The opportunity is there to play a full season and deliver solid/average production.
If we’re not confining this to young players, my surprise pick is Justin Schultz. I think there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about his defensive game at even strength, but if he is given the opportunity to run the first unit power play, he should deliver a lot of value there. As an aside, in my ideal world, I’d send out five forwards on the first unit, with Matty Beniers running things from the blue line, but I don’t think coach Dave Hakstol will do that. Short of that, Schultz is clearly the best bet in my opinion. He moves well with the puck, makes good decisions in space, and can deliver accurate passes.
DB – I love that Borgen call. Anecdotally speaking, it does seem like he’s primed to play a regular role this season. With him and fellow right-shot defensemen Schultz and Adam Larsson, Seattle could have a nicely balanced blue line for the first time.
Also, for the record, I do not agree with your premise of putting five forwards on the power play, and I’m quite content with Matty in the right circle.
For my pick, I *want* to go with Morgan Geekie here, but he still seems destined for a bottom-six or even thirteenth-or-fourteenth forward role. So, instead, I’m going to go with another fairly obvious option and say Shane Wright.
General manager Ron Francis said to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic that he thinks Wright will be with the team all season. If that comes to fruition, it will be fun to watch Wright develop as an NHLer before our eyes.
In his preseason performances, he hasn’t jumped off the page, but there have been moments of brilliance. We expect a relatively slow start, but as he adjusts to the speed of the game, don’t be surprised to see Wright producing and playing a key role in the second half of the season.
DB – Alright, I know we’re still supposed to be tempering expectations for the 19-year-old rookie, but I’m going to go with the grain and with what my eyes have seen in camp and preseason. Matty Beniers looks even better than he did during his 10-game stint at the end of last season, when he scored nine points. He’s stronger now, his shot is more lethal than I remember, and he looks comfortable in his surroundings.
The proof has been in the pudding so far, as he has goals in all three of the preseason games he’s played, all coming off wicked shots. We expect Beniers to center one of the top two lines all season long and be a shooter on the top power play unit. With those opportunities should come plenty of points, and–dare I say–Calder Trophy consideration.
CI – As bizarre as it is to type, I’d agree that Beniers probably should be the betting favorite to lead the team in points. The two point leaders from last season – Jared McCann (50) and Yanni Gourde (48) – haven’t even been skating with the first unit power play so far so I would not necessarily expect total point production improvement from either player. Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstand will be considered wildly successful acquisitions if they get into this same range. With Beniers “off the board” so to speak, I’ll go back to Alex Wennberg. I predicted 55 points for him and I guess I’ll say that narrowly leads the team. What do you think, Darren? Any world in which Alex Wennberg is your leading scorer? And, if not Beniers, who?
DB – I did not expect Wennberg as your rebuttal. I would have expected McCann as your second choice, though I have a weird hunch he will regress a bit from his career year. If Wennberg is the leading scorer in terms of points, it will mean one of his linemates has put up a huge number of goals, because I wouldn’t expect Wennberg to shoot nearly enough to fill the net himself. Interesting pick, though.
Prospect to watch
CI – You know I’m ready to go deep on prospects, Darren. And I was tempted to spend three paragraphs expressing my genuine interest in seeing what high schooler Ben MacDonald does with the West Kelowna Warriors of the BCHL.
But my actual answer to the question of which prospect I’m most interested to see this year is the prospect closest to, but not in, the NHL: Ryker Evans. The 20-year-old blueliner got more ice time this preseason with the Kraken, and, while there were certainly rough moments, I was encouraged by what I saw on balance. He plays with aggression and skill offensively and through the neutral zone. Impressive stuff for a younger player.
The Seattle blue line has a number of question marks looking past this year. Will Vince Dunn deserve a new contract? Will Carson Soucy return? Can Will Borgen or Cale Fleury justify a long-term role? All of this means there is opportunity for Evans. Will he seize it? I’m curious to find out.
DB – I’m shocked you didn’t take Wright. I had mentally prepared myself to write a blurb on Evans, but since you went that direction, and since I already commented on Wright above, I’ll throw a curveball here and say Jagger Firkus. I don’t expect him to make the NHL for a couple seasons, but he will be on a good Moose Jaw Warriors team and should have a ton of confidence returning to the WHL after a positive NHL training camp. Can he top his 80 points in 66 games from last season?
Offseason acquisition that makes the biggest impact
DB – I’m glad I get to go first here. Oliver Bjorkstrand is my pick. I love this guy’s game in all three zones, and although he hasn’t found the scoresheet too many times in preseason, there have been flashes of brilliance that make me think he’s going to be a key contributor.
There may be a bit of an adjustment period, which could make it difficult for Bjorkstrand to replicate the 28 goals he potted in 2021-22 in Columbus. But, he showed good chemistry on a line with former teammate Wennberg and Gourde against the Canucks on Saturday, and he will play big minutes.
CI – Yes, Darren, Bjorkstrand is the pick. I mentioned that Justin Schultz could bring a big boost to the power play, but I think if there is another offseason acquisition that could threaten Bjorkstrand, it has to be Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky is an elite shooter. But he doesn’t shoot as much as you might expect and has not topped 22 goals in any season. If the team can figure out a way to isolate Burakovsky as a shooter, and the 27-year-old forward adopts the right mentality, I could certainly see a 30-goal campaign in his future. If that were to happen this year, you could fairly argue Burakovsky had the biggest impact.
CI – For all of the changes to this team, I think Yanni Gourde is the guy here. The fans got it right last year, and Yanni should keep the belt (fish?) as team MVP for at least one more year. He should be one of the three or four best skaters on the team, and he is one of the clear emotional and inspirational leaders. The total package is too much for any other player to overcome. If Beniers is a point-per-game player as a rookie and wins the Calder Trophy, get back to me, I guess. What do you think, Darren?
DB – Beniers all the way. I’m sticking to my guns from above and saying he’s going to have a fantastic season. I genuinely think that–even at 19 years old–he’s Seattle’s best player, assuming he can maintain confidence and battle through the rigors of an 82-game NHL season.