As we in the Seattle hockey community continue to think of Andy Eide, we also eagerly anticipate the first appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the NHL’s 32nd franchise. During the inaugural Kraken season, Andy often wrote pre-game “Enemy Reports” for Sound Of Hockey, so we thought it was a good time for a reboot of that series.
More than just another organization “first,” this trip to the playoffs feels similar to the inaugural Kraken home game–a culmination of tireless efforts and the realization of countless dreams. We wish Andy were here to tell us all about it, but there’s no better way to dive into the playoffs than with a concept he came up with in the first place.
Just after 7:00 pm Pacific, the Kraken will find themselves staring down the defending champion Colorado Avalanche across the face-off circle. The last player to touch his stick to the ice before the puck drops will almost certainly be Avs superstar Nathan MacKinnon. His presence looms large in this series, and his ability to produce could very well dictate how it plays out.
Snapshot: Kraken vs. Avalanche
Superficially, the Kraken and Avalanche can look similar on paper. Colorado ended with 109 standings points and Seattle took 100. Per Evolving Hockey statistics, the Kraken are 18th in expected goals for at five-on-five and the Avalanche at 19th. The Kraken are eighth in five-on-five expected goals against and the Avalanche are sixth. Neither fares well on the face-off dot. Both do well controlling transition play. Both are middling on the penalty kill. The Avalanche have the more efficient power play, ranking sixth in conversion rate, whereas the Kraken rank tied for 19th. But the Kraken have fared better in five-on-five scoring, ranking first compared with the Avs, who are tied for 15th. It looks close.
Yet, when we dig a little deeper, we find two teams that stand in stark contrast, both in terms of how they are built and how they navigated the regular season.
The Avalanche ended the season in familiar rarefied air: first in the Central Division and tied for second in the Western Conference. But it did not start that way. The Avalanche began slowly by their standards, hampered by injuries.
On March 5, 2023, the Avalanche lost to the Seattle Kraken 3-2 in overtime when a Yanni Gourde snap shot became a memorable game winner. At that time, the Avs stood at just 34-21-6.
Since then Colorado has been a runaway boulder down hill–an Avalanche, if you will. The Avs went 17-3-1 to finish the season, taking full advantage of a weak stretch of opponents and holding their own against playoff teams, going 4-2-1 against postseason qualifiers. The Avs are third in goals for percentage (GF%) and fifth in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) since March 5, and no team has scored more goals on the power play during that stretch than the Avs (20).
During the same timeframe, Seattle’s pace plateaued. The Kraken tallied a record of 10-7-2 and accumulated most of their points against weaker competition. Seattle went just 1-6-1 against playoff teams, with the one win being Larsson’s overtime golden goal in Dallas. Under the hood, the shot metrics continue to be solid enough; Seattle is ninth in GF% and seventh in xGF%. But it is hard to ignore that Seattle has not beaten a 2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoff team in regulation since Jan. 12. In these tougher matchups, where one goal can make all the difference, Seattle has struggled in Andre Burakovsky’s absence.
Take the number: Avalanche players to watch
As I’ll breakdown further below, the Colorado Avalanche will go as far as superstar forward Nathan MacKinnon (No. 29) can take them. MacKinnon had 42 goals and 69 assists in just 71 games this season, surpassing the 100-point threshold for the first time as a 27-year-old. And he has typically elevated his production in the postseason. Since making his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014, he has played in 70 playoff contests, tallying 41 goals and 52 assists. With 93 playoff points, he leads all Colorado skaters and ranks fifth in the NHL during that span.
Mikko Rantanen (No. 96) somewhat quietly scored 55 goals for Colorado on MacKinnon’s wing this season. Adding in fifty assists, he too topped 100 points for the first time in his career at 26 years old. He and MacKinnon give Colorado two of only 11 players in the NHL to top 100 points this season and a potent one-two punch at the top of the lineup. Rantanen piled up 20 assists and five goals during Colorado’s Stanley Cup-winning run last season.
Remarkably, the most talented player on the Avalanche might not be MacKinnon or Rantanen but Cale Makar (No. 8). The 24-year-old blueliner piled up 66 points in 60 games this season. Makar can skate, creatively make offense, and finish as well as a top-tier forward while also keeping his defense above par. He led the reigning champion Avalanche with 29 points in 20 games in the playoffs last year. The only question on Makar coming into this series was health, but it sounds like he should be ready to go in the first round against Seattle.
Valeri Nichuskin (No. 13) is 6-foot-4 power forward who bulldozed his way through competition in the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Playoffs en route to 15 playoff points, fifth on the team. Artturi Lehkonen (No. 62) is a strong defensive player who also scored 21 goals this season. Devon Toews (No. 7) scored 50 points from the blue line and would qualify as a bona fide No. 1 defenseman on most teams lacking Makar.
Missing from the lineup, though, is Gabriel Landeskog (No. 92), a top-line player and Colorado’s captain. He was fourth on the team in playoff scoring last season, tallying 11 goals and 11 assists across 20 contests. Landeskog is not expected back this postseason.
Finally, in net for Colorado will be Alexandar Georgiev (No. 40). A smaller stature goaltender like Philipp Grubauer, Georgiev has had a productive season, posting above-average numbers against all varieties of shots–close and from distance, slap shots, wrist shots, and deflections. His 19 goals saved above expected put him just outside the top 10 goalies in the league, per Evolving Hockey.
Key to the series: matching Nathan MacKinnon’s line
The Colorado Avalanche are a different team when MacKinnon’s line is on the ice. In particular, MacKinnon’s ability to drive play into the offensive zone, create scoring chance volume, and improve the probability that his teammates finish scoring chances by delivering pin point, high-danger passes put him in the small handful of superstar players in this league.
With elite scorer Rantanen attached to MacKinnon on his right wing, Colorado generated 81 goals in 1191 minutes of five-on-five time with MacKinnon on the ice (4.08 goals per 60 minutes). During that time, Colorado generated 26 percent above-average shot quality.
What happens to Colorado’s offense when MacKinnon (and usually Rantanen) are off the ice? Half of its offensive potency simply vanishes. The team struggles to generate scoring chances five-on-five, registering shot quality 7 percent worse than league average. And even more troubling than that, Colorado’s remaining lines have lacked the finishing skill and creativity to turn the chances they do get into goals. In 2753 minutes without MacKinnon on the ice at five-on-five, Colorado has generated just 93 goals (2.02 goals per sixty minutes).
This lack of depth scoring is in contrast with the 2021-22 Stanley Cup winning Avalanche team. Last season, Colorado was similarly productive with MacKinnon on the ice, scoring 3.96 goals per sixty minutes at five-on-five. But the team’s middle-six scorers were able to keep the boulder moving when MacKinnon was on the bench. The 2021-22 Avalanche scored 130 five-on-five goals over 2862 minutes without MacKinnon on the ice (2.73 goals per sixty minutes).
Injuries (Gabriel Landeskog) and free-agent departures (Nazem Kadri, Burakovsky) have shortened the offensive lineup this year. All of this leaves Colorado much more reliant on MacKinnon, both at even strength and on the power play, where his isolated impacts improve Colorado’s scoring chances by 8 percent according to HockeyViz.
Colorado recognizes its scoring limitations with MacKinnon off the ice and compensates by playing more conservatively to avoid scoring chances against. The Avalanche tighten up the defensive structure, and look to slow down opposing rush chances, particularly through the neutral zone and at the blue line. When MacKinnon is on the ice, Colorado is willing to live with the risk that its aggressive rush offense and forecheck will yield some counter-strike offense. The team concedes shot quality 2 percent worse than average with MacKinnon on the ice, shots worth 2.63 xG per sixty minutes at five-on-five.
With MacKinnon off the ice, Colorado suppresses opponent shot quality 12 percent better than average and yields just 2.27 xG per sixty minutes. For reference, this is similar to the defensive work done by the Kraken at five-on-five overall.
For these reasons, how the Kraken matchup against MacKinnon’s line is one of the key strategic questions I have going into this particular matchup. While in Colorado, the Kraken will not have the benefit of the “last change,” of course. But “last change” often receives undo emphasis given that the majority of line matchups come during the run of play anyway, rather than after stoppages. Coaches can push play toward specific matchups regardless of the arena.
If I were in Kraken coach Dave Hakstol’s shoes, I’d be looking to get a lineup on the ice that is strong defensively, but also capable of counterpunching with transition offense after successfully disrupting the MacKinnon line into a turnover. That potential for offensive production is important because Colorado tends to make itself most vulnerable and cheats in favor of offense when MacKinnon is circling the offensive zone.
Alex Wennberg’s line has taken the toughest matchups for much of the season. But I do not believe the current version of the Wennberg line is a good candidate to match MacKinnon’s group because it lacks the offensive firepower to make Colorado pay for its overcommitment to offense. Burakovsky’s absence hurts there.
Instead, to the extent it can be managed, I would put out Jared McCann, Matty Beniers, and Jordan Eberle as the forward grouping to combat MacKinnon during “on the fly” changes, along with the Vince Dunn and Adam Larsson defensive pair. The forward group is sound defensively. And then McCann and Beniers, in particular, can produce with speed on the counterattack, particularly when supported by Dunn. Then, if there is a critical defensive-zone draw, I would lean toward the Eeli Tolvanen-Yanni Gourde-Oliver Bjorkstrand line matching MacKinnon, given Gourde’s superior production obtaining possession off the draw and that group’s strong defensive play.
These groupings are unlikely to outproduce MacKinnon’s line, but if they could limit the goal deficit, it would give Seattle’s depth scoring a chance to turn the tide. It could be the key to the series.
“This is it, the most lopsided series of the opening round.” – The Athletic
On the other hand: