An 11-day break to reset, unwind, and gear back up for what will be a necessary sprint to two finish lines is almost at an end, delivering a run to the trade deadline, and the end of the season line, where the Seattle Kraken have hung around long enough to enter the playoff conversation.
Here are five burning questions with the season ready to resume this Saturday in Philadelphia:
1. Will they be a buyer or a seller, and what will the roster look like?
This picture is becoming more clear by the day. They will be a buyer.*
* Fine print time: they’ll buy, as long as they hang around the playoff picture.
“Talks have certainly picked up here in the last few weeks,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis told Chuck and Buck in the Morning, Monday on 93.3 KJR-FM.
“If we can stay in the hunt, then certainly we’ll look to add pieces to make us stronger if we could.”
Francis tore away any remaining strips of doubt on this after revealing nearly three weeks ago to the Kraken Audio Network “we’ve got the picks and got the prospects” to make another trade, to begin this week by painting a picture of their current status.
Yet, they are not cemented into a playoff spot like one season ago. They are a bubble team, and this season has a much more treacherous path. They must get through a grueling four-game road swing, then a six-game homestand which includes highly-flammable hazards such as Boston, Vancouver and Edmonton, then back-to-back road games against the Flames (still in this race with the Kraken) and Winnipeg (another Cup contender).
Should they maintain their grip on the playoff race, it’s possible Francis targets top-end scoring. It’s their biggest need, ranking 27th in the league for goal scoring. Centers Elias Lindholm (Canucks) and Sean Monahan (Jets) are already spoken for. Winger Jake Guentzel, however, could be a rumored addition to the trade block in Pittsburgh, and would fit right in with five former Penguins teammates in the Kraken dressing room – Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Jamie Oleksiak. Other options such as Adam Henrique, Vladimir Tarasenko (yep, there he is again), and Kevin Hayes have surfaced. Depending on the acquisition, money on the current roster will need to be moved to accommodate a trade.
What if they’re out of contention by early March? Despite wild playoff success last season, the Kraken are still not yet in a true contender, “win now” window compared to the Canucks, Golden Knights, Oilers, Rangers, Bruins, or Avalanche. It’s possible that older veterans could begin to surface as trade options, further allowing Francis to stock valuable draft capital or more prospects that could surface within two to three years. It’s still a seller’s market at this point. The next few weeks will be extremely telling in what direction the Kraken move.
2. What’s it going to take for Matty Beniers to re-discover his Calder Trophy form?
This is a conversation that’s grown louder by the week. No longer are we in the “it’s just a slow start” territory. This is a sophomore slump, no matter how you slice it. Beniers has six goals and 19 points with a -12 rating in 45 games. Last season, he had six goals by Thanksgiving, and 19 points by the end of November. His usage hasn’t changed – matter of fact, he is the “featured” top center on a team that prides itself on a forward corps without traditional line labels. They have done everything with him in the lineup, except scratch him.
One difference versus last season: he is more noticeable to the opposition, and higher up in video scouting conversations, and coaches scouting reports. He also hasn’t added any weight to his 6-foot-2, 178-pound frame from his rookie season, to face the brunt physicality of staunch and experienced defenders. He can’t hide anymore. For the first month of the season, the defensive crosshairs sniped at his offensive opportunities.
Francis said conversations have occurred with Beniers on rebounding measures, ultimately, for a player he said needs puck luck.
“It took him 13 games (this season) for him to score his first goal,” Francis told Chuck and Buck in the Morning on 93.3 KJR-FM. “As a young kid, we forget how young he is – it starts to weigh on your mind.”
“Sometimes it takes continuing work, which he does, and start having some pucks bounce your way, and luck go your way. All of a sudden, you get that confidence back, and away you go. Hopefully this break will be good for him as well.”
But likely, the biggest hurdle in his face while making adjustments, is the patience game.
“Like St. Louis’ (Robert) Thomas and (Jordan) Kyrou, in their second year, matchups are tougher than year one,” an NHL scout told 93.3 KJR-FM by text message.
“He is now consistently facing top lines, power versus power, or a specific matchup line whose sole job is to shut him down. So now, things can quickly snowball. Lack of success equals pressing harder and forcing plays that are not there, and then losing confidence. He’s too good of a player NOT to right the ship … have no doubt he will figure it out.”
3. How likely will the Kraken call up prospects like Ryker Evans and Shane Wright again?
Evans: very likely, unless Francis makes another trade to lengthen the defensive depth of the roster, or engineer another call-up separately from Evans in the AHL. It’s highly unlikely the Kraken will roll back into the break with six defensemen, where their blueline depth would be hanging by a thread. Calling Evans back up, which could be soon, means he’s ready to step in at the next available moment at a level where he’s proven he can play. Short term, it may rob him of more games and development time in the minors, but he’s crossed nearly every checkpoint necessary at the AHL level to validate readiness in the NHL.
Wright: trickier. Could he play in the NHL right now? At this point, yes. Is the near future likely? At this point, no. The Kraken pulled strings to get Wright into the AHL – a happy medium where entering this season, he was too green for the NHL but outgrew his competition in major junior. He was challenged by Francis before the year to command the puck more, and use his shot.
The plan is working. As an underage 19-year-old (remember, typical major junior “graduates” aren’t allowed in the minor leagues by rule until they hit 20 years of age), he’s bagged 18 goals in 41 games – the only rookie in the league with more is Logan Stankoven in Texas, who’s two ahead. Given the fact he’s producing at a level ahead of his typical age group, and the Kraken are set at center, he’s where he should be. Though, another call-up to add to his three-game NHL stint later this season isn’t out of the question.
4. How heavy will the workload be for goalie “1a” Joey Daccord?
Go back to head coach Dave Hakstol’s reply after a disappointing 2-0 loss in San Jose on January 30 to enter the bye week, when he was questioned on the reasoning behind using Daccord in 19 of the last 21 starts, and more recently, over Philipp Grubauer:
“Winning hockey games.”
And there you have it.
If that blunt answer doesn’t tell you Daccord is now the man in net, nothing else will. For as long as they are in this playoff race, Daccord is now their clear-cut best winning option, goalie 1a, head honcho, and the admiral behind the wheel. Grubauer at this point is spelling him when needed. The writing was on the wall when Daccord set franchise records with eight straight wins and longest shutout streak of 158:34 – and he played in every minute of that duration of the schedule except for a Chris Driedger storybook win in Calgary on Dec. 27. The Winter Classic win on New Year’s Day – delivering an outdoor shutout on national television over the defending Stanley Cup champs – seemed to seal the deal.
Grubauer, the $5.9 million man who has been the team’s big game starter entering this year and the best player in their seven-game first round upset of Colorado last year, but whose save percentage has lingered at .884 this season, came back from long term injured reserve January 23.
So, maybe play him against lottery-bound Chicago the next day?
Nope, Daccord’s net.
Maybe play him against St. Louis, struggling but staying in the playoff race, next game?
Nope, Daccord’s net.
Maybe play him against lottery-bound Columbus?
Nope, Daccord’s net.
What about the San Jose game?
(You can guess the answer by now.)
We have a pattern.
At some point, the Kraken will have to play Grubauer. You’ll hear Hakstol or Francis serve frequent reminders about never having enough goaltenders. It’s the truth, after all. They will play back-to-back games next Monday and Tuesday at the Devils and Islanders. Grubauer will certainly get one of those starts. Two more back-to-backs remain where using him will be a necessity. After that, it’s anyone’s guess, though it’s extremely uncommon to see a singular goaltender in this era carry out 90 percent of the remaining schedule like Grant Fuhr in his heyday. Teams are more sensitive to health and workload management than ever before, and riding one goaltender is a risky proposition which typically travels the fast track to burnout.
But, the bottom line: the usage and results have told the story. Daccord is likely getting the big starts, from here on out.
5. What’s the likelihood they make the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
They’re two points out of a wild card spot. They’re still very much in it. So, it’s likely. Moneypuck.com’s odds have the Kraken at 49% to make the playoffs – suggesting that clinching a berth is realistic, but the path has plenty of hazards ahead.
One of them: health, always the unpredictable hazard. With the exception of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, they are a fully rejuvenated squad bearing resemblance to last year’s playoff team. But last year’s group, with the exception of losing Andre Burakovsky after the All-Star break, enjoyed an unbelievable run of fortune with health. This year, it hasn’t been so easy with Burakovsky, Jaden Schwartz, Brandon Tanev, and even Vince Dunn on the shelf. Burakovsky has been there three times with ailments.
Another hazard: the schedule, which once was the fifth easiest in the NHL just a few weeks ago. But the Kraken recently left three points on the table in four straight games against teams initially out of the playoff picture. Now it gets harder. Coming out of the break, they face four road games in six days on another east coast swing, ending a week from Friday against the juggernaut Boston Bruins. They come home for a six-game stretch after that, but will have to click “challenge accepted” on the Canucks, Bruins (again), Penguins, and (gulp) Oilers. Time to enter the deep, indeed.
Let’s just say Francis wasn’t a fan of this plan.
“I’m not real happy with the fact for the second year in a row, we have to fly across the country,” Francis told 93.3 KJR-FM . “We can’t do anything until the eighth (of February). So there’s 11 days in between we can’t skate until the eighth, and we have to travel across the county.”
“The other thing that was supposed to be a part of this was keeping the competition fair. So, you’re going to be playing a team basically on a break as well, but in our case, we play Philadelphia who plays Tuesday, Thursday, and then will be playing their third game against us when we’re playing our first game after 11 days off. Then we roll into ‘three in four’ and ‘four in six’ which is certainly not ideal after an 11-day break. I’m sure we’ll be having further discissions with the league’s schedulers on that as we move forward.”
It bears resemblance to a gauntlet run of last year, when the Kraken ran the table on a seven-game trip and eventually ripped off eight straight wins in January, formerly a franchise record, firmly cementing themselves as a playoff team in a stretch which was either going to make or break their season. This time, it will be a test through the road, and a push to the finish line of trade deadline time to justify the addition of established talent for another trip to the postseason. Once they’re clear, they have 10 of 14 games in March on home ice.
The race to get there, and get in, will certainly be pulsating.