By the measure of a calendar year, the Seattle Kraken played hockey 14 days later than last season.
Buy by the measure of progress, they basically took a leap that’s comparable from an infant’s crawl to the sprinting stride of an Olympic athlete.
Their 19-win and 40-point improvement set a new NHL standard for a second year team that even shocked general manager Ron Francis, who built the year two Kraken on the foundation of a “sum of the parts” operation that even without a superstar, was still effective.
“You never go into the season thinking you're going to have a 40 point increase but it worked out that way,” said Francis.
“The guys liked each other. They worked hard for each other. Their main goal is winning hockey games, not personal accolades, which is always special when a team comes together and does that and because of that, we will have a lot of success.”
There was no Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, or Auston Matthews in the lineup. But fortifying their depth to produce six 20-goal scorers was good enough to rank fourth in the league, led the regular season at five-on-five goals, and exit the playoffs as the leader in the same full strength category.
Immediate takeaways from two days of talks with players, management, and head coach Dave Hakstol:
1. PHILIPP GRUBAUER IS PREPARED TO PLAY LIKE A MAN POSSESSED. Grubauer exited the regular season at 13-9-3 over the last two months. It was a sign of things to come. He capped a seven game triumph over Colorado with a legacy game seven, 33 stops in an iconic win at Colorado for the first series win in Kraken history. His play declined a tick in the Dallas series but delivered another virtuoso performance in game seven with 28 stops, many in high danger areas, to give the Kraken a chance in a 2-1 loss. He’s built for the game 7 moment, has a .951 save percentage in those two winner-take-all games this year, and it’s becoming clearer that perhaps his struggles, from last season and bleeding into early in the year, are behind him.
If he had it his way, we’re flash forwarding the calendar at rapid speed.
“I would love to start tomorrow with training camp, to be honest,” Grubauer said to 93.3 KJR-FM.
That’s the sign of a savage competitor. He needs his rest, but he has transformed the position from a team question mark into strength.
2. VINCE DUNN SHOULD GET SIGNED LONG-TERM. OTHERS ARE QUESTION MARKS. Dunn left Kraken Community Iceplex vowing he’s “all in” with suiting up in Kraken colors next season.
“I want nothing but to continue to wear that jersey and for many years to come.”
What happens next: the Kraken need to extend Dunn, whose expired contract now enters restricted free agency status and is likely due a raise from his previous deal worth four million, annually. Francis said talks of an extension haven’t started yet.
“We’re hopeful,” he said.
Dunn earned the team’s Pete Muldoon award (MVP) after a breakout, 14-goal, and 64-point campaign. An extension at this point feels like not a matter of "if" but "when," securing a linchpin of their blueline. Other contracts that are coming off the books include Daniel Sprong, Morgan Geekie, Ryan Donato, Will Borgen, forward Joonas Donskoi (who missed the entire season with reported concussion issues) and goaltender Martin Jones, all totaling over $18 million in cleared cap space.
“It’s early in the process for us in talking,” said Francis.
3. ANDRE BURAKOVSKY’S INJURY WAS AS BAD AS WE IMAGINED. Details were kept under cloak and dagger for three-and-a-half months, but Francis revealed on Thursday the injury that kept Burakovsky sidelined starting in February was a torn groin, while also dealing with setbacks in recovery that eventually required surgery, washing away a target date to return just a week after the NHL trade deadline.
Francis said his “understanding” after surgery was a return to the lineup in the Stanley Cup Final, and projected Burakovsky to be fully recovered for training camp in four months.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Burakovsky would have likely made a greater impact on the Kraken fortunes in a playoff run that stopped nine wins shy of the Stanley Cup. He has two Stanley Cup rings from runs in Washington and Colorado, carries 20 goals in 93 career playoff games, and has four goals in six career game seven situations.
4. TYE KARTYE WILL MAKE THE KRAKEN ROSTER NEXT YEAR. With ten forwards already under contract for next season, the summer may not be as explosive and transforming as we saw last year. After what happened this season, it doesn’t need that big of a pound-against-the-pavement in hot stove season. Matty Beniers has arrived, Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand have come as advertised, Eeli Tolvanen is a revelation, and Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle are still ticking. That only begins to scratch the surface.
Now enter Tye Kartye, undrafted and meekly signed during the trade deadline last season to a contract that put him in the AHL this season. He erupted for 28 goals, earned the AHL’s rookie of the year award, was called up under near-emergency conditions with Jared McCann out after the Cale Makar hit, and has been near impossible to bench.
Without being prompted on Kartye’s game, Hakstol spoke of him in similar vein of Matty Beniers. They are coming from two different words via college (Beniers) and major junior (Kartye), but now in the same conversation like both are full-timers.
“He went through the American League for the year, started with a limited role there in a third or fourth line role, built that, built his confidence, and by the time he came here, we were able to plug him right into a very similar role here in the NHL that he was playing in the American League,” said Hakstol.
With a heavy shot and heavy presence physically, he emerged as one the league’s leaders in hits during the second round and scored three goals in 10 playoff games – one that knocked out Dallas’ Jake Oettinger from game six. He looks every bit the part of a full-time NHL’er and has all but carved a sure-fire spot in the lineup for next season.
5. SHANE WRIGHT NEEDS A BIG SUMMER TO BE “NHL READY”. Consider it not a referendum on his future, but as of now, a work in progress. Shane Wright’s season has had as straight of a path as an average level in Sonic the Hedgehog.
At age 18, he started with the Kraken, debuted opening night, then struggled to stay in the lineup, then ripped out four goals in five games with Coachella Valley on a conditioning stint, then came back to score his first NHL goal against (who else?) Montreal, then captained Canada to a gold medal, then ripped off 15 goals in 20 OHL games before the Windsor Spitfires were knocked out of the first round.
Francis said it’s “a possibility” that Wright, armed with an NHL-ready shot and elite-level IQ, could be on the Kraken roster next season, provided he clears a set of benchmarks. One is adding muscle to his six-foot, 192-pound frame. Another is fine-tuning “parts of his game,” as Francis said, that will be addressed with Kraken director of player development Jeff Tambellini.
“He’s going to have to earn it like everybody else has around here, and that includes having a big summer for him,” said Francis.
It’s clear Francis prefers the AHL, “probably the best spot for him this past year,” as an immediate landing spot for Wright, though the league generally forbids players under 20 years of age to play there, with a few exceptions. Francis is boarding a plane to watch Wright and the Firebirds in a do-or-die game five against Calgary on Friday in California. Wright, eligible as an AHL call-up with his OHL season complete, has a goal and four points in 11 AHL playoff games.