In the previous edition of the Seattle Kraken camp countdown, a series of ten thoughts (we’re splitting them up because the word count is so robust … hey, the last post went 2,500 words) set the table for this next season.
The Seattle Kraken are a playoff team. They have reached the stage of “broken in.” We’ve experienced an evolution of team identity, a general manager taking a contract extension, a head coach perhaps nearing one of his own, comings and goings, and legendary moments - also leaving questions on the table of how the same success can be repeated from last year, and what kind of calculus has to come through for repeat success.
Jared McCann, the situation in net, rookies, Andre Burakovsky, and Matty Beniers’ future were all covered. Here are the final set of thoughts, closing the off-season, and set to open doors at Kraken Community Iceplex for rookies on Monday at 11:15am, and the main group for training camp, 9:30am, on Sept. 21:
6. CAN EELI TOLVANEN DO IT AGAIN?
There’s no award for this, but Eeli Tolvanen was the 2022-23 waiver wire pickup of the year. Unless someone else experiences the same kind of offensive jump after the same kind of ending he had in Nashville, he’s on his way to waiver wire pickup of the decade.
It’s not just a random game of chance that leads to an explosion of offense like he experienced. He had two goals in 13 games in Nashville, was sent packing away with the intent to have him land in AHL Milwaukee, the Kraken then stepped in, and then Tolvanen erupted for 16 goals (giving him a career-high of 18) in just 48 games. He found a better environment. He found a role that never changed. He found stability. He was a motivated player (remember the two goals he scored, in his first game back in Nashville)? He even added a three-point game in a “do or die” game six against Dallas in the second round. Ultimately, his linemates including Yanni Gourde and Oliver Bjorkstrand formed a trio that was a linchpin in a run that got to one win shy of the Conference Final.
Can Tolvanen raise his level and move to the 20-goal mark, maybe even 25 with a full season in Seattle now at his advantage? He now has a firm role within the lineup and proof of production on the power play. There’s only one player with a better shot percentage (as far as those who made the playoff roster) on the team: Jared McCann. Tolvanen’s shot, which carries plenty of heat and sizzle, puts him in a lethal position to score when he finds open ice. He’ll be an interesting player to watch as the season gets underway. With presumptions that returning players can carry the same tune or improve on theirs, an incremental bump in Tolvanen’s production will help with plugging the offensive drain, especially in the loss of Daniel Sprong’s 21 goals to Detroit.
7. WHERE DOES SHANE WRIGHT FIT IN ALL OF THIS?
Well, didn’t we have a fun week with speculation?
About a year ago it was Shane Wright’s job to lose within a regular season lineup spot. The problem with offseason takes: they’re fun to digest, like the sugar rush of a candy bar. But they’re completely unpredictable. For the first two months, Wright was constantly in and out of the lineup, needed a conditioning stint in the AHL to catch fire then score his first career NHL goal, and often found himself stapled to the bench in October and November. As time moved on, it was clear the situation demanded playing time at a lower level, except the Kraken burned their conditioning stint option by November, so he couldn’t play in the AHL. Off he went to capture the gold medal, torch the OHL to conclude the regular season, then take playoff eligibility in Coachella Valley to become a lineup regular, despite reduced offense.
General manager Ron Francis has opened the door to Wright making the NHL roster, saying there’s a “possibility” at the end of last season, but there are more strings attached. The lineup’s spine at center is firmly in place with experience, noting the come-of-age for Matty Beniers, then with veterans such as Alex Wennberg, Yanni Gourde, and the incoming Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. The reality of last season’s success took open jobs off the board.
“(Wright’s) going to have to earn it like everybody else has around here, and that includes having a big summer for him,” said Francis in May, shortly after the conclusion of the season.
So, what if Wright isn’t ready yet?
The American Hockey League has proven to be compatible for Wright, at least in a five-game sample size, where he scored four goals, despite the fact he’s a year shy of technical eligibility from the CHL-NHL player transfer agreement, prohibiting players who’ve suited up in the Canadian Hockey League under age 20 to play in the minor leagues. But here’s where it gets interesting:
It’s very likely Wright will have the opportunity to play in the American Hockey League this season in a full-time roster slot, should he not make the Kraken roster out of training camp. An exemption is potentially coming for him via negotiations between general manager Ron Francis, and executives from the NHL and OHL, as reported by Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times. The team however has received no formal confirmation of the arrangement.
“I don’t have anything in writing saying I’m good, but it sounds like if we got to that point, it would be OK,” Francis told the Seattle Times.
8. CAPTAINCY QUESITONS
The possibility that the Seattle Kraken could again, go without a captain for this season, is rooted in fact that they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs without one last season. Mark Giordano is the only name to bear the sovereign letter on his jersey in franchise history – and that was a move that happened in special “beyond the shadow of a doubt” circumstances.
Times were different last season. It was almost like a “reset” button, where culture needed time to formally marinate, with fresh faces (carrying potential long roads ahead) such as Matty Beniers, Andre Burakovsky, and Oliver Bjorkstrand were integrating with returners such as Gourde, Jordan Eberle, Jaden Schwartz, and Adam Larsson.
So, what about this year? Does someone wear the “C?” Yanni Gourde is at the center of the team’s heartbeat. Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle are two popular names that come to mind, and for good reason: their resumes are thick, Schwartz has won a Stanley Cup, and both were top six mainstays on a playoff team that got there because of a record-setting turnaround for a second year team out of expansion.
However, there’s an element of caution with reacting haphazardly to name a captain, for the sake of naming a captain. There’s that fact once again: the record-setting turnaround. The Kraken did this navigating uncharted waters with a leadership structure by committee. There’s also the Beniers factor, a 20-year old rookie who had the presence of a veteran, and who is growing with leadership potential.
Head coach Dave Hakstol, at the end of last season, credited the team of four assistant captains and their ultimate skill of communicating, and feeling out the roller coaster of game moments to stabilize each situation.
But is there one bona-fide captain coming soon?
“I think we’ll talk more about that,” said Hakstol in May. “But I thought for this year, and as we look into the future, if that’s the way we decide to go again next year, we have a group that’s built really well to do that, when you look at the experience and leadership in our dressing room.”
It’s an element in hockey that rarely operates with change for the sake of change and will likely uncover the next steps after camp opens. Who grows into the role? Is everyone better off with a four-man committee? Those answers are coming.
9. LET THE KIDS GROW
Season one, there was barely a farm system. Season two, there was finally a minor league affiliate. Season three: now we’re cooking.
Common core values of Francis when it comes to running an organization often embrace the concept of patience, and organic growth. Look at the Carolina Hurricanes, who have ripened into a Stanley Cup contender consistently since the start of the decade, and because of players such as Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce, linchpins who were Francis draft picks from the previous decade.
There were no shortcuts, just a “low and slow” approach to growing an organization. The same method applies here. The Kraken ultimately weren’t interested in trading draft picks for the shiny toy with an obscenely large contract. Beniers has arrived, Shane Wright still has a long runway, and Ryker Evans could be next to debut. A veteran heavy group in Coachella Valley will now potentially morph into a team showcased young and fresh talent, eligible to welcome in Ryan Winterton, Logan Morrison, Ville Ottavainen and Jacob Melanson.
Next season, Jagger Firkus, David Goyette, and Ty Nelson are among those who will be eligible to enter the minor league system. Coachella Valley comes off a remarkable, blue-moon type of expansion season that set an overarching tone for mission, core values, and critical box office success. This season, while those aforementioned goals remain just as important, will be critical for nurturing more players in the “draft and develop” category.
Ultimately, the NHL could be 2-3 years away for a select few. They are held in high value with the Kraken, and a piece of last season held critically intact, proving the means were possible to have it both ways: make playoff run without the trade deadline expense of dealing away future talent.
They’ll be a must-watch attraction at training camp.
How we view this season through the lens of expectation is highly reliant on understanding the emotional and strategic barometer in a dressing room blended with rookies, progressing veterans, and Stanley Cup champions. No longer are they a band of expansion vagabonds. This is the present day Seattle Kraken, prepared to embark on a 2023-24 season that retains a large chunk of last year’s roster.
By consensus, last season, a lot of what had to go right, did go right. Health was rarely an issue. The most damaging was to the goaltending, where Martin Jones raised his game in Philipp Grubauer’s absence. Then Grubauer warmed up when the season did, too. Oliver Bjorkstrand settled in. Jaden Schwartz caught fire. Jordan Eberle delivered on schedule. When Andre Burakovsky went down, a collective effort starring Jared McCann’s 17 goals in 32 games, and Vince Dunn’s 28 points in 31 games, buoyed an offense that didn’t skip a beat and finished with the fourth best output in the league.
For a team that was out of contention in their first season by Christmas, and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their second season, where’s the bar set for the third season? Conference Final? Stanley Cup Final? Just make it in?
“Goal for me every year is to make playoffs, and once we make playoffs, you never know what could happen,” said Francis after the season concluded.
“That should be our goal every year, get in and ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup.”
That’s a little pressure taken off the backs of a team that’s still collectively the youngest of the 32 franchises in the NHL. They understand their full capability of getting in. They set the bar that high last season and cleared it. The ingredients are in place to crack the top eight. But considering year three is just on the horizon, a long term nucleus is still forming, and just how darned difficult the task is just to get in the playoffs, tempered and realistic expectations are the mission that rules the day.
Starting next Thursday, that mission will be ready to go for launch.