After a Kraken-player-less NHL All-Star weekend and what has felt like a never-ending hiatus from game action, Seattle finally goes back to work this week with a five-game road trip through the New York Metropolitan area, Philadelphia, and—oddly—Winnipeg. The Kraken acquired Jaycob Megna from the Sharks Sunday, so we wanted to touch on that, but we also thought it was a good time to take stock in what the organization has, consider how it got to its current spot in the standings, and think ahead to what else it might want to add at the NHL Trade Deadline.
Before we get to the Megna deal, we wanted to mention that last season, we wrote a similar State-of-the-Franchise-type article when the Kraken returned from a COVID-induced extension of the Christmas break that resulted in an 11-day layoff. Writing that article was a reckoning for us here at Sound Of Hockey. We are perpetual optimists, but even we had a hard time putting a positive spin on the situation and had begun to realize that the inaugural season had gone sideways with no hope of salvaging it.
The tone of this “State of the Franchise” article will be markedly more positive than that one, as the Kraken exit the All-Star break in first place in the Pacific Division with reason to believe that the team can have sustained success well beyond this season.
Kraken acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose
Kraken general manager Ron Francis made his first deal in the lead-up to the NHL Trade Deadline Sunday, acquiring 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman Jaycob Megna from the Sharks for a conditional fourth-round pick. Megna, 30, is a left shot and has spent most of the season as Erik Karlsson’s defense partner in San Jose, regularly logging north of 20 minutes of ice time in games.
A stay-at-home defenseman that can help on the penalty kill, Megna has four goals and 21 assists in 135 career NHL games over five seasons between Anaheim and San Jose. The 48 games he has played this season are the most he has played in a single campaign in his career, explaining the relatively low cap hit.
Megna figures to be a depth addition to the blue line in Seattle, but interestingly, he is not just a traditional rental; he has a year left on his contract after this season at a team-friendly $762,500. That seems to imply that even if fellow left-shot defenseman Carson Soucy stays with the team past the deadline, Megna would replace Soucy for next season, as Soucy is on an expiring deal.
This is exactly the type of trade we would have expected from Francis and company, and it seems to be a good deal for the Kraken in terms of value. Megna brings size, depth, good analytics, PK improvement, a low cap hit, and another year of term, and he cost Seattle next to nothing.
It will be interesting to see where he slots in.
Are the Kraken nasty wasty?
There’s a running not-so-inside joke between Sound Of Hockey and Kraken radio voice Everett Fitzhugh that dates back to the pre-season. Seattle got off to a great start in its September and October tune-up games. Even as the lineup got shuffled to give bubble players opportunities and to manage workloads, the team was finding different ways to win, regardless of who was playing each night. Fitzhugh said he would look around the arena during games and wonder to himself, Are the Kraken… good?
Sound Of Hockey shared the cautiously optimistic sentiment with Fitzhugh and escalated the question to, Are the Kraken… nasty? And then, Are they… nasty wasty?
Fast forward four months, and the Kraken have proven that they are, in fact, nasty. But are they nasty wasty? We say the jury is still out on wastiness, but the first unofficial half of the season laid a solid foundation for Seattle to hit nasty wasty status.
Coming in, we knew the team had improved over last season, but in the early stages, we had a hard time believing it would be competitive all season long.
We started to trust our eyes in early November. Backstopped by Joey Daccord, Seattle came back from two goals down in the third period to beat Calgary on the road, then followed that up with impressive wins in Minnesota and Pittsburgh to sweep the three-game trip.
From there, the club steamrolled its way through November with an outrageous 10-1-1 record before predictably faltering in December. As it always goes after long win streaks in the NHL, bad habits crept in while the team was cruising through victories in the month prior.
But, to the credit of the players and the coaching staff, they all seemed to get pissed off after getting smoked on home ice by Edmonton to close out the 2022 calendar year, and they responded by righting the ship and putting together an exceptional month of January. The team set an NHL record with a perfect two-week, seven-game road trip to earn 14 standings points and closed out the month with an 11-3-1 record.
If Seattle has a similarly successful month of February, it will officially be time to call the Kraken nasty wasty.
How we got here
Before the season, Francis, coach Dave Hakstol, and several Kraken players indicated the team’s goal was to make the playoffs. We are certain none of them expected to be in first place in the Pacific Division at the All-Star break with 63 points, having already surpassed their 2021-22 total for the entire season.
So how did this turnaround happen?
First, Francis and his front office made a series of shrewd moves in the offseason that changed the makeup of the roster. By signing Andre Burakovsky to a five-year, $27.5 million contract, trading for Oliver Bjorkstrand, and getting Matty Beniers back for his first full NHL season, the Kraken effectively added a full top-six forward line.
Though streaky in his productivity, Burakovsky quietly leads the team in scoring with 39 points. Bjorkstrand hasn’t scored in the way we would have expected, but even when he isn’t scoring, he finds ways to make himself impactful. He has also now settled onto a line with Yanni Gourde and Eeli Tolvanen (more on him in a moment) that looks like the real deal. Beniers, who leads all NHL rookies in goals (17) and points (36), was selected for the All-Star Game but couldn’t attend due to injury.
That’s an impactful trio of Killer B’s.
And let’s not forget the offseason additions of defenseman Justin Schultz, who has quarterbacked the power play and brought balance to Seattle’s blue line, and goaltender Martin Jones, who has had a renaissance year en route to a 23-7-3 record.
Via waivers, the Kraken also layered in an in-season steal of the 23-year-old Tolvanen, who has burst onto the scene with eight goals in 13 games. His wicked shot and hard work away from the puck have earned him the trust of the coaching staff, and as he continues to impress on that line with Gourde and Bjorkstrand, he’s looking more and more like one of the best waiver wire pickups of all time.
Improvement from within
The turnaround hasn’t just been about personnel changes, though. Seattle has gotten contributions from the entire roster, from Cale Fleury, who has recently filled in seamlessly for an injured Schultz, to Jared McCann, who could pot 40 goals this season.
And one of the great constants of the group has been its non-traditional fourth line, which wreaks offensive havoc on its opponents night in and night out. The key players on that line, Daniel Sprong, Ryan Donato, Morgan Geekie, and sometimes Brandon Tanev, have brought a consistent effort that creates chances without giving up much defensively.
Sprong and Donato are both having career years, and both are remarkable stories. Neither player was qualified by the team after last season, and after testing the market, the duo ultimately landed back with the Kraken on one-year deals. Heck, Sprong didn’t even have a contract when he got to training camp on a professional try-out, but he has earned everything he’s gotten this season, including his career-best 15 goals.
Speaking of career years, Vince Dunn has blossomed on Seattle’s top defense pairing, meshing with stay-at-home veteran Adam Larsson and contributing at both ends of the ice. Dunn has erupted for 36 points on the year and set a franchise record by recording a point in eight straight games in January.
In the goal crease, Philipp Grubauer has effectively lost his starter role to Jones, but he too has improved after a disastrous first season in deep sea blue. Grubauer hasn’t gotten the same goal-scoring support from his team as Jones, which has led to an uninspiring 5-8-2 record. But, according to MoneyPuck, his expected goals saved has improved from -33.7 last season to +2.9 this season, while his save percentage has risen marginally from .889 to .897.
We expect Hakstol to continue giving Jones the lion’s share of starts—sticking with one primary goalie has been Hakstol’s modus operandi over the last two seasons—but Grubauer will undoubtedly play a key role down the stretch.
Mix all those impressive individual performances with a group that appears to have fully bought into Hakstol’s systems and philosophies, and you get a massive improvement from one season to the next.
Helping Seattle’s cause in its first half was a remarkably healthy squad… until recently.
The injury bug started biting when Jaden Schwartz disappeared from the lineup on Jan. 12. Schwartz, who is a key cog in Seattle’s top six, missed 45 games in 2021-22 with an issue that we believe he is still managing. It has become commonplace for Schwartz to either miss morning skates or to skate on his own in a tracksuit, only to be in the lineup that same night. It remains unclear if Schwartz’s recent absence is related to the same issue from last season or if it is something new.
Schultz left the game in Edmonton on Jan. 17 and hasn’t been seen on the ice since. The puck-moving defenseman took an innocuous-looking hit into the end boards and skated off looking fine. But he exited early and is on injured reserve, deemed “week-to-week” before the break by Hakstol.
Meanwhile, the Beniers injury was downright disappointing. After getting tossed by a completely unnecessary hit by Vancouver’s Tyler Myers, Beniers twisted awkwardly and then hit his head on the ice. With the timing of the All-Star break, the budding star has only missed two games but had to sit out from what should have been an unforgettable experience in South Florida.
The good news on this front is that Hakstol shared after the Columbus game on Jan. 28 that he doesn’t think any of the injuries are “too long term.” That’s about as specific as we’ve ever heard Hakstol get with timelines, so we’re hopeful the injured players will be able to return soon after the break. If that ends up being the case, the hiatus came at exactly the right time, giving Seattle time to lick its wounds after a brutal January schedule.
What else to add at the Trade Deadline?
The front office and the coaching staff have pressed all the right buttons this season. After selling off anything of value at last season’s NHL Trade Deadline and collecting up a treasure trove of draft picks, the Kraken are poised to be buyers before March 3. Francis has already showed with the Megna trade that he is willing to continue pressing buttons.
Francis is notorious for playing his moves close to the vest—the trades for Megna and Bjorkstrand are great recent examples—so throwing out any other specific trade targets would be complete speculation. That said, the team has a plan for long-term success, and we do not believe it will make moves that blow holes in that plan, i.e., trading away top prospects or first-round draft picks for rental players. Megna fits this profile.
In addition to this defensive depth, we think a forward that can provide grit and an occasional offensive punch could also help, and players like that can be added without altering the chemistry dramatically or breaking the bank.
The Kraken will return to the ice for practice Monday on Long Island before taking on the Islanders Tuesday at UBS Arena.