In the clear, calm, and quiet, 12 hours removed from a Wednesday night 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the dawn that peeked through the trademark glass window panes of Climate Pledge Arena beamed down on Mason Appleton, first skater on ice for the Seattle Kraken before an 11:00 am practice.
Though he was not cleared on Thursday, his participation in a sky blue practice jersey signified progress, a word the Kraken cling hope to for a turnaround – one they desperately want soon.
It started with one player on ice looking to muscle his way back into the lineup, and it ended after a 25-minute session of small area games, odd-man rush drills, and regrouping with a conversation on defense, a projected pre-season trademark of Kraken success that overall by record, has been a little hard to come by.
The Kraken have lost five games in a row and have been searching for a lead in a game since Nov. 12 at Vegas (a string of three straight games they’ve trailed, wire-to-wire).
That hasn’t stopped head coach Dave Hakstol with his support for the defense’s job, night after night.
“I look at our group defensively; you have to tear into it and look into those underlying numbers,” said Hakstol. “Those numbers are excellent. We’re top four to five in the league in a lot of categories, top one and two in many. Vast majority, we’re in the top ten. We’re a good defensive team in a lot of respects. We’re going to get better.
The defensive metrics so far (NaturalStatTrick.com):
· Expected goals against– 24.9 (sixth best in the NHL) (measuring total quality of scoring chances the whole season)
· Scoring chances against – 295 (sixth best in the NHL)
· “High Danger” scoring chances against – 107 (fifth best in the NHL) (the slot, front of the net)
· High danger goals against – 25 (tied for 29thin the NHL)
· High danger save percentage – 72.8 (last in the NHL)
In regards to goaltending, a job shared by last year’s Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer and last season’s emerging bedrock in Chris Driedger, Hakstol said the evaluation lies more in just who’s between the pipes.
“(Last Thursday) in the first period versus Anaheim, we gave up five odd-man rushes,” said Hakstol. “We’re giving up too many outnumbered in that respects. We want to be better. When you give those up, you have to find a way to defend and get a stop.
“When you get a stop, that’s a team conversation. That means a forward tracking that play out of it, the defense can do better to defend it, and we can do a better job of ‘five’ before it gets to our goaltenders. Then it’s our goaltenders’ job and they know that – to make a save for us at the right time.”
WHO STARTS NEXT, AND WHO STARTS WHEN?
With Grubauer solidified in net and Driedger putting a knee injury in the rear view mirror, Hakstol said the Kraken now have a duo – both coming off banner seasons in 2021 – at a hundred percent health, ready to be deployed.
The solution to solve the equation, “who gets the net” has many layers.
“Every day we’ll go through and evaluate based on performance, based on part of schedule, and planning that way,” said Hakstol. “This is probably the first time we’ve been to a point this season where we feel we have two fully healthy guys.”
So in addition to who's next, how do they prepare for it?
“For me it’s competing in practice, finding little battles with guys on the ice,” said Driedger. “(If) they score on me, then make sure they don’t score another one on me – that type of thing. Just staying engaged and biding my time until I can get in there and win some games.”
Hakstol said Driedger has “had several good practices in a row” and complimented the former Florida Panther for being prepared.
“He looks like he’s feeling good and at his best,” said Hakstol.
Driedger, signed by the Kraken as their official expansion selection from the Florida Panthers after a season where he came unto his own at 14-6-3 with a .927 save percentage and helping – at times – keep the ship afloat with a struggling Sergei Bobrovsky, is still trying to find firm footing with the Kraken after returning Nov. 9 in a 4-2 loss at Vegas – his first and only start of the season.
That's where the schedule comes into play. The talk coming into this season of how much of a balance would exist between Grubauer and Driedger, has led to a heavy lean with Grubauer even after the Nov. 9 game in Vegas, with Grubauer playing in every minute of three games in the previous six days.
He has appeared in 13 of 16 Kraken games so far – 81 percent of their schedule.
The Kraken are in the middle of playing in three games in five days (the high-octane Colorado Avalanche are next, Friday at 7pm), and have their third “back-to-back” set on the schedule coming up Nov. 26-27, a two-day gauntlet through the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. They will also play in 14 sets of back-to-back games.
When their number is called, usually a development that isn’t’ revealed until a game day morning skate, the options serve as a potential safety valve against schedule fatigue.
“These guys show up, they’re pros, they do their work and if you speak to either of them they’ll be ready to go whenever called upon,” said Hakstol.
Appleton, taking drills as a frequent swap on Alex Wennberg’s line (along with wings Jaden Schwart and Jordan Eberle), is still recovering from a lower body ailment suffered against Montreal on Oct. 26 and has missed the last nine games … a slight tweak of line combinations re-arranged Yanni Gourde’s line, still with Brandon Tanev on the left wing but with Ryan Donato playing as the right winger … Colin Blackwell (Gourde and Tanev’s linemate last night), took drills with Morgan Geekie and Joonas Donskoi.