One puck to the back of the net, end of a drill: you’d think it was a goal to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series.
At least that’s the look of joy that overtook the face of Joonas Donskoi.
The Seattle Kraken are back.
Sunday, December 26 marked the first time the Kraken were seen on ice collectively since a 5-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers at Climate Pledge Arena on Dec. 18.
That was eight days ago.
In between came postponed games (matchups vs. Toronto, Arizona, Calgary and Vancouver all need to be rescheduled), COVID-19 protocol exits and entries, injuries, NHL withdrawal from the Olympics, planes, trains and automobiles to get people home for the holidays and back.
Pretty mundane. Or not.
So, when they finally gathered a little before the scheduled 4:00pm session at Kraken Community Iceplex with COVID-19 testing complete, their time on ice represented more than just a collection of two-on-one drills and small-area games: it was a step ahead in the right direction to normalcy, once again.
“Kind of feels like it’s a fresh start,” said forward Marcus Johansson. “Get out, have some fun in practice, meet everyone again.”
SEVEN DAYS OFF – BACK AT STEP ONE
Johansson said with an originally scheduled three-day break extended further, the last week – with no practices or games – were spent primarily at his house.
“I have two kids so you’re moving around with them out, playing with them, walking, also getting out you have some fresh air, and move around,” said Johansson.
It’s a long ask for a professional hockey player to be taken out of the elements of routine: practice, games, workouts, and essential socializing. But as Johansson said, “everybody’s in the same boat,” the Kraken proceeded through a mandatory COVID-19 pre-practice test procedure to assemble a group of 17 skaters on ice for the first day back, post-holiday break.
The runway they have to be ready for the first game back is a little longer now: instead of a Dec. 27 matchup against the Vancouver Canucks – in B.C. but postponed – the Kraken have three full days to shake off any presumed rust and recalibrate into a game-ready rhythm before the Philadelphia Flyers roll into town on Dec. 29.
“It would be tougher if we played tomorrow with just one practice in us,” said Johansson.
Hakstol, preparing to face his former team and avenge a 6-1 defeat in the first matchup on Oct. 18, said the eight days off were more than what every player is accustomed to, and the goal coming out of the break is shrinking the focus to one effective practice at a time.
“Regardless of who’s available and who’s not available, those practices are important to make sure we get some rhythm back and the level of our game back heading into game action,” said Hakstol.
Forward Yanni Gourde, a sparkplug for the Kraken lineup with 16 points in 22 games and in his first practice since returning from COVID-19 protocol, said less is more.
“Once the game starts, (I’ll) try not to do too much,” said Gourde. “Do simple things and build from there. You can’t go from zero to one hundred just like that. You’ve got to take your time and start building.”
The Kraken were clear to have 20 full skaters at their usage on Sunday, but defenseman Will Borgen, forward Colin Blackwell and leading goal-scorer Jordan Eberle all missed practice due to travel circumstances. That left the Kraken short of a fully available stack to mix in typical line combinations and suitable defensive pairs as they worked to get back up to speed with 17 skaters.
Then, there’s the familiar term, “COVID-19 protocol,” which rendered two more Kraken skaters unavailable on Sunday: forward Ryan Donato and defenseman Vince Dunn. That left the Kraken without five players on the roster in the same holding pattern with four of them, defensemen: Dunn, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, Carson Soucy, and Donato.
The first three players mentioned are ranked top four on the Kraken for minutes played per game. That’s a lot of gears missing in the home security system for a defense ranked tied for second best in the NHL at 28.7 shots per game.
That leaves the Kraken with Mark Giordano, Jeremy Lauzon, Haydn Fleury, and Borgen as the only four active defensemen on the roster. Oleksiak, Larsson and Soucy all went into protocol before the break, with Oleksiak the earliest as out of action starting Dec. 17.
How long the Kraken need to go through that shorthanded conundrum remains to be seen, depending how long Oleksiak, Larsson and Soucy are out.
On Sunday evening, the National Hockey League and NHLPA agreed to reintroduce the “taxi squad” concept (as used last season) for each team’s roster, a boost for potential roster reinforcements which give each team a maximum of six additional players who are treated like NHL players, practicing and traveling with the team and can be recalled anytime, but are paid as minor leaguers. In addition, emergency recalls from the minor leagues are back in play due to the impact from the pandemic.
Taxi squads are available to be filled now through the start of the All-Star break, when the NHL will dissolve all taxi squads and players must either be fully recalled or sent back to the minors.
So, who’s next from the Charlotte Checkers? Forwards Kole Lind, Carsen Twarynski, Luke Henman, defensemen Connor Carrick, Cale Fleury and Gustav Olofsson are there. Who gets called up next is still a work in progress.
“Over the next 24 hours most likely, those are some of the decisions that will get made,” said Hakstol.
Then, there’s the Brandon Tanev situation: on injured reserve after colliding into the end boards on Dec. 18 vs. Edmonton, but no definitive timetable on how long he’ll be out. It’s expected an update will be available on Monday.
“I’ve been talking to Adam (Larsson) every day. We’ve been texting a lot. He’s been pretty bored. Hopefully it won’t be too hard for him to get back. We’ve all had a week off. It takes a couple practices to start feeling normal out there again.” – Marcus Johansson on teammate and defenseman Adam Larsson, in COVID-19 protocol