When a team is struggling, there usually is a rock-bottom moment that it has to hit before it can get back to finding success. Our hope here at Sound Of Hockey is that Friday’s 7-2 spanking by Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers was that moment for the Seattle Kraken, who are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and are now out of a playoff spot.
Trying to get themselves going back in the right direction, the Kraken went back to work Saturday at Kraken Community Iceplex with some apparent personnel and tactical changes in the works.
Coach Dave Hakstol threw his forward lines in a blender during Friday’s game, and they were mixed up again at practice on Saturday.
“We shuffled a lot of things [Friday] that we likely won’t start with [Sunday], but we wanted to put a couple different combinations together,” Hakstol said. “Nothing drastic, but we shifted some wingers.”
Here’s what we saw at KCI:
Andre Burakovsky // Matty Beniers // Jordan Eberle
Jared McCann // Alex Wennberg // Jaden Schwartz
Eeli Tolvanen // Yanni Gourde // Oliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon Tanev // Morgan Geekie // Daniel Sprong
The most interesting change is certainly Eeli Tolvanen on a regular line rush with Yanni Gourde and Oliver Bjorkstrand, while Ryan Donato was rotating in and out.
Tolvanen has remained a healthy scratch for the Kraken every game since being claimed off waivers from Nashville on Dec. 12. The reason Hakstol hasn’t gotten him in yet is because all of the other forward candidates to be a healthy scratch—guys like Donato, Daniel Sprong, and Morgan Geekie—have been impactful, despite Seattle’s struggles.
If Donato ends up coming out Sunday against the Islanders to give Tolvanen a chance, that doesn’t seem particularly fair for a player who has five goals and six points in his last seven games. But, somebody has to sit if Tolvanen is going to go in, and it does feel like high time to give the newcomer a shot.
Jared McCann says the changes are all about doing things to help the team find consistency. “We’ll have one good game, and then the next game, next two games will be bad, right? So, we gotta find some consistency, and sometimes you gotta shake the lines up.”
New approach to the penalty kill
Throughout this season, Seattle has stuck with a very aggressive wedge-plus-one penalty kill formation. In simple terms, the wedge plus one is made up of three players in a triangle around the front of the net, with the fourth player pressuring the puck high in the zone. It’s an aggressive approach, because the “plus one” player pressuring is trying to intercept a pass and create an offensive opportunity. If that player over-pursues, or if a rotation is missed, it creates vulnerabilities and seams for the opposing power play.
Plainly, the approach hasn’t worked, especially recently, and at a 67.9 percent success rate, Seattle’s PK has sunk to 31st in the NHL.
Saturday, the Kraken were practicing a more conservative box formation, which is played almost like a zone defense. Penalty killers form a four-man square, with the two defenders covering from the crease out to about the hashmarks, and the two forwards covering anything higher than that, depending on where the puck is in the zone. The goal of the box is to keep the puck to the perimeter, deflect passes through the middle, and collapse around the netminder when it goes to the inside.
“Every game, you have to make small adjustments,” said Jamie Oleksiak. “I think obviously our PK hasn’t been going the way we want it to, and we’re just trying some things to get on the right page.”
We really like this change and actually called for it recently on the Sound Of Hockey Podcast. If you do the same thing for long enough, and it continuously doesn’t work, then eventually you need to change it up.
If nothing else, this formation change should give the PK a temporary boost while opposing teams look for ways to exploit it.
What’s been going wrong?
Compared to the early stages of the season, the mood in the dressing room has been more serious among Kraken players in the last couple weeks as losses have piled up. Hakstol has preached getting back to the hard-nosed relentless style that we’ve come to expect from this team, and the players have largely echoed that sentiment.
The Kraken coach admitted Saturday that the team has diverged from its gameplan in part because Seattle was previously winning games, despite not always sticking to its traditional style. “When we look over the past six weeks, there’s some games where we got away with it for lack of a better term. We were able to, offensively, get ourselves through games and come away with two points. And that’s just not reality.”
Said Oleksiak, “We got skilled guys, but I don’t think we’re going to out-skill every team in the league, and I think [Friday] was an example of that. You can’t play their style of hockey, which is going to be trading chance for chance and trying to play the transition game or whatnot.”
Meanwhile, the Kraken have had some awful starts to games lately, with Friday’s opening minutes serving as a shining example. “I think our starts have been terrible the last couple of weeks,” said Jared McCann. “We’ve given up goals in the first couple minutes of games multiple times, leaving our goalies out to dry a couple of times as well. We just got to get back to the way we were playing.”
Getting back on track
So, how do the Kraken get back on the right track?
The team’s players offered a few suggestions Saturday, and although Seattle hasn’t shown it on the ice, the group knows it needs to get back to a relentless 60-minute effort that relies on structure and patience to win games.
“I think we just haven’t played as much to our structure, and then we’ve been getting out competed a little bit,” said Will Borgen. “So, minor fixes we can adjust to and get back to our old ways of how we were playing at the beginning of the year when we were on our little winning stretches.”
Oleksiak said returning to a suffocating forecheck is also important. He said that as a defenseman, life gets much harder when you have forwards barreling down on you when you go back to retrieve pucks. “I think our strengths are— we got speed, we got skill, but we’re at our best when we’re a five-man unit, and we’re playing honest hockey, we’re finishing checks, we’re hard on the forecheck.”
The good news is, even as things have unraveled for Seattle over the past month, nobody seems to be panicking. “Some guys are upset, but that’s part of it,” said Borgen. “You play an 82-game season, so you’re gonna have ups and downs.”
As for Hakstol, he sees it as an opportunity for the team to grow from this hard stretch.
“Everybody’s been through it before,” Hakstol said. “But you know, you have to take something and make it a valuable part of your season. It’s painful as hell, so if you can make it of value, then it becomes an important part of the season.”