As the Seattle Kraken prepared to take on the struggling Calgary Flames Saturday, line rushes at their morning skate looked familiar to what we’ve seen over the past week. Assuming nothing changes between practice and game time, this will be the third game in a row coach Dave Hakstol has trotted out the exact same lineup, dating back to the team’s road-trip-closing overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 30.
Seattle got off to a slow start to its season, going 1-4-1 in its first six games. Its lineup has been shuffled several times since then partly out of necessity (Brandon Tanev and Andre Burakovsky each got injured in those first two weeks) and partly because Hakstol wasn’t seeing results from groups that were so successful together last season.
The Kraken have started to find success, going 3-1-1 in their last five games, and it seems their line shuffling is settled… for now.
“You come out of wins, you come out of games where you find ways to get points as a group, you’re pretty cautious to make changes,” Hakstol said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t do it, but we’ve liked some of the combinations.”
The forward mix Seattle has gone with the last two games (and will stick with Saturday against the Flames) has looked like this:
Tye Kartye – Matty Beniers – Oliver Bjorkstrand
Jaden Schwartz – Alex Wennberg – Jordan Eberle
Jared McCann – Yanni Gourde – Eeli Tolvanen
Devin Shore – Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – Kailer Yamamoto
When the Kraken started their recent four-game road trip in Detroit, everything looked identical to the above, except Eberle and Bjorkstrand were flipped. With Burakovsky out of the lineup, Eberle skated alongside the two youngsters with whom he found success in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. But the last tweak to the lines came when Bjorkstrand and Eberle traded spots, and things have gone swimmingly for Seattle since that minor change.
“We’ve won a few games, so it seems to be working,” Bjorkstrand said. “We obviously had a slow start, so we’re trying to find a little bit of something that’s working, but I think it looks good. I think we have a lot of combinations that could work.”
The Kraken started the season with forward combinations that were practically etched in stone for long stretches of last season, especially McCann, Beniers, and Eberle playing together on the top line, and Tolvanen, Gourde, and Bjorkstrand making up the third line. But Hakstol recognized those groups didn’t have the same mojo in the early stages of the current campaign, so he quickly recalibrated.
Hakstol said, “When you look at Gourdie, McCann and Tolvi, right? We know that Gourdie and Tolvi have great chemistry. Jared McCann has fit in well there. I thought Matty Beniers had a real good hockey game the other night [against Nashville], and Ollie Bjorkstrand was a part of that. So that group showed a little bit of chemistry together.”
Plenty of depth
The Kraken have enough skilled players that Hakstol can sprinkle them up and down the lineup, even with a guy like Burakovsky out long term, and that depth creates mismatches for some of Seattle’s top players. How can an opponent properly match up against a 40-goal scorer in McCann skating on the team’s third line? As we’re seeing lately, it’s a tall task for opposing coaches to answer that question.
“We have a lot of guys who can score goals and create chemistry with anybody,” said McCann. “And I’m playing with two guys that– I know what they’re gonna do, meat-and-potatoes kinds of guys that just focus on what makes them successful. And I feel like that’s what I was kind of missing at the beginning of the year. I was just trying to make things a little complicated. Getting back to watching guys like Yanni and Tolvi play that way just helps my game.”
Gourde has liked what he’s seen from all of Seattle’s top three lines lately. “This locker room, up and down the lineup, everybody can play different positions, and right now, it’s working that way, and it’s fun to watch,” Gourde said. “And you see that Wennberg line has been really good, effective. That Beniers line, they’ve been staying on pucks, playing fast… and our line, I mean, we’ve just got to keep going and keep building and keep building that transition and rush and be a little bit better in our D-zone.”
Still a work in progress
Is this how the lines will remain for the rest of the season? Of course not. More injuries will happen, and Burakovsky and Tanev will eventually come back. But there are trios of forwards that have shown they can work well together when things get shaken up again.
“It’s never going to be the right mix,” Gourde said. “It can change on a daily basis; it’s not something that is anchored in and that’s going to stay.”
Hakstol does seem confident in the group as it stands, though, and he’s also cognizant of the harmful effects too much line juggling can have on a team.
“One of the things you have to be careful with is it’s not always a line combination that’s not working,” Hakstol said. “So sometimes it’s about giving guys a little bit of time, rather than switching things up every two or three days and not allowing guys to get any comfort together at all. So there’s a fine line there.”
Lifting up slumping goal scorers
There are three forwards in the Kraken lineup—Jordan Eberle, Matty Beniers, and Eeli Tolvanen—that have struggled to find the offensive prowess they each showed last season. Those three have combined for just two goals this season, and Beniers, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, remains goalless.
We do not think it’s a coincidence that none of those three are on a line together currently. Instead, Tolvanen is now playing with the team’s top goal scorer in McCann, Beniers is with Bjorkstrand, who has had a solid all-around start to the season, and Eberle is playing with Schwartz, who has been Seattle’s most consistent player so far. Eventually, the goals being scored by others should rub off on Eberle, Beniers, and Tolvanen.
Asked specifically about Beniers, Hakstol thinks he’ll get the monkey off his back soon.
“One’s going to bounce in for him,” Hakstol said. “Whether he shoots it in the net or it bounces in off his ass, one’s going to go in sooner or later. And when it does, that’s going to loosen him up a little bit offensively.”
Other tidbits – Gourde testing neck guard
A big topic around the hockey world lately has been the use of neck guards, after Adam Johnson was tragically killed playing in a game for the Nottingham Panthers of the EIHL. In the wake of that horrifying incident, a handful of players around the NHL have been seen wearing protective equipment around the throat area.
Gourde was the first Kraken player to be seen wearing one Saturday.
“We all know what happened, and I think we’re testing some stuff out here to see how it feels,” Gourde said. “Protecting yourself is probably the biggest answer for [why I was wearing it].”
Gourde said he probably wouldn’t wear it for Saturday’s game against the Flames, but he will continue to try to find the right solution for him.
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