Forward Marcus Johansson called a stretch after the holiday break, for one day of practice “tougher” than having a stretch of three days.
The Seattle Kraken were shorthanded the first two.
Not anymore on Tuesday. Their final day of preparation at Kraken Community Iceplex before a scheduled return to play on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, ending a break of ten days off between games, included a graduation from a scenario of skating just four available defensemen on Monday, to a full slate of six.
Gaining a full lineup with two players out of COVID-19 protocol meant a test run with a traditional set of 12 forwards and six defensemen, providing a symmetrical definition of available skaters before three games in four days, all at home, against Philadelphia, Calgary, and Vancouver.
JAMIE OLEKSIAK, CARSON SOUCY REPLENISHING THE DEFENSE
For a team that’s shown defensive aptitude connected to the second fewest shots allowed per game (28.7) in the NHL, the return on Tuesday of Jamie Oleksiak and Carson Soucy out of COVID-19 protocol meant more than just a boost in overall numbers.
Previously skating with only as many as four defensemen in a practice (typically, six defensemen suit up for full game action), the Kraken were able to round out their defense with Oleksiak, a 6-foot-7 and 255 pound defenseman averaging the fourth most minutes per game on the entire team. Soucy leads the Kraken defense with four goals and has accumulated penalty kill responsibilities (fourth most minutes among defensemen), last seen scoring a goal in a loss to Edmonton the last time they played, Dec. 18.
Hakstol said given the fact the Kraken are unable recall defensemen Connor Carrick, Cale Fleury and Gustav Olofsson (all three are in COVID-19 protocol with the Charlotte Checkers) from the American Hockey League, there’s a plan to use all six defensemen on hand, but with caution – especially for Oleksiak and Soucy.
“We’re going to have to be really careful with minutes for both of those guys,” said Hakstol.
“We’ll manage their minutes and see where they’re at as we get into the game tomorrow night. Both guys are good veterans, they know how to handle themselves and their bodies pretty well. We’ve got morning skate tomorrow morning, we’ll get a few more touches for them, pay attention and manage their minutes through the game.”
Oleksiak, returning to a familiar pairing with Mark Giordano, said he spent most of his protocol period texting teammates, using FaceTime to connect with family, and talking socially distant walks to get fresh air. Once he was ready to return, he indicated Tuesday’s practice gave a blueprint that his body was fully ready to go.
“If today’s practice was any indication, I felt fine,” said Oleksiak. “The lungs felt good, the legs felt good, so I guess you don’t know until you play the game. I exerted myself pretty well today. I felt pretty good I can handle it.”
Soucy, who said he tested positive after his dressing room stall neighbor, Oleksiak, entered protocol 24 hours prior, spent his first morning back on ice with defensive pair partner Jeremy Lauzon after getting through an isolated period he called involving “mostly fatigue” with cold symptoms and the urge to get outside for fresh air whenever possible.
After his exit from protocol, getting back to an ideal level he said existed “over the last couple games” including a 3-1 win at San Jose on Dec. 14 involves a less-is-more approach.
“Keep my game simple tomorrow,” said Soucy. “Get back the feel of game, pace of game, try as much as I can in practice getting up and down the ice and – get the legs back which felt not bad. Get back into it, keep a simple game and build from there.”
A LOOK AHEAD
Barring any additional postponements, the Kraken are about 24 hours away at the time of this filing from finally getting back on the ice, turning what was a solo homestand opener before the extended holiday break into a six-game home bulk to provide an opportunity to chew off a seven-point deficit behind the Vancouver Canucks, seventh in the Pacific Division while winning six straight games.
With that full slate back on ice today, Hakstol said working with what they have is their top priority, coming off a near hour long skate.
“Very important to make sure the mindset is doing everything you can with the group you have available,” said Hakstol. “We’ll be ready to play. We’re coming off a good practice today.”
Per the AHL’s transactions webpage, forward Kole Lind and goaltender Joey Daccord were recalled to the Kraken taxi squad from the Charlotte Checkers.
The Flyers, the target of a Kraken payback after Seattle’s 6-1 loss in Philadelphia on Oct. 18, have lingered in a tie for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division while turning over the head coach reins to interim bench boss Mike Yeo, replacing Alain Vigneault who was fired on Dec. 6.
Philadelphia, led by six-time All-Star Claude Giroux’s 25 points, was so close to another “old stomping grounds” reunion scrapped by COVID-19 protocol. Goaltender Carter Hart, two-time Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the Year with the Everett Silvertips, landed in protocol on Monday, two days before what would have been his first NHL game in Seattle and 30 minutes from his former major junior home ice.
A similar circumstance happened to Carolina’s Ethan Bear, a standout WHL champion defenseman with the Seattle Thunderbirds, who was sidelined before the Hurricanes only visit to Seattle in November.
Since Dec. 21, the Flyers have seen Hart, Sean Couturier, Ryan Ellis, Derick Brassard, and Scott Laughton sidelined in protocol.
Calgary, who lost Mark Giordano to the Kraken in the expansion draft, will face the Kraken for the first time this season and at one point led the Pacific Division with veteran head coach Darryl Sutter at the controls. But the Flames have lost four games in a row, have fallen to third place and will visit Seattle for their first game since a lengthy pause on their season with as many as 19 players and three coaches, including Sutter, in COVID protocol which wiped out seven games.
The Canucks, who visit the Kraken for their second meeting and first since Climate Pledge Arena opened for hockey on Oct. 23, found new life with a six-game win streak after Bruce Boudreau replaced head coach Travis Green while longtime NHL executive Jim Rutherford took over as President of Hockey Operations.
But the Canucks, led by J.T. Miller’s 32 points and 10 goals, will be challenged to find a rhythm again with five straight games postponed involving the holiday break and COVID-19 issues. The Canucks will return to play Wednesday at Anaheim to start a three game trip.
KRAKEN AT PRACTICE, DEC. 28:
POWER PLAY UNITS:
UNIT 1: Giordano, McCann, Johansson, Eberle, Schwartz,
UNIT 2: Fleury, Geekie, Donskoi, Gourde, Wennberg