It was wholly unfair to the Seattle Kraken that they had to be the expansion team to follow the Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights warped everyone’s view of what an expansion team should be, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their very first year. The Knights took advantage of a swath of moronic NHL GMs who didn’t really know what to value, and assembled a roster of incredibly fast, incredibly determined players that skated at speeds most of the rest of the league couldn’t handle.
GMs wised up a few years later when it came time to supply the Kraken with a roster, and not nearly as many trades or promises were made so teams could hold onto some overpaid stiff in favor of some younger speedster they’d undervalued. The Kraken had what we think of as a normal expansion season last year, selling out the building on novelty and excitement, but finishing up the track in the actual standings. It looked like the Kraken would have to take the normal path of a new team, piling up high draft picks and developing players and maybe picking off a couple of other prospects in deadline trades for guys who shined in bigger roles than they would get anywhere else.
Yep, the usual expansion time frame of one season, it would seem.
Seattle yesterday clobbered the Florida Panthers in Sunrise 5-2 (that Paul Maurice hiring just gets better and better) to snap a brief three-game skid. They are comfortably second in the Pacific Division, with four games in hand on the third-place Kings and three points up on the Oilers who currently hold the first wild-card spot.
So just what the fuck are they doing here?
A first glance at some metrics suggests that they belong exactly where they are. They sit 8th in the league at Corsi-percentage at even-strength and 10th in expected-goals percentage. Their power play has clicked at 24 percent, which has helped them to be sixth in the league in goals per game.
The Kraken have been able to pile up all those goals from everywhere it seems, with seven guys having notched at least five times so far this season. 13 players have at least 10 points (the Leafs only have nine, for example, the all-conquering Bruins 12). Not bad for a team that’s still supposed to be a collection of scrap metal and grease runoff, as expansion teams are supposed to be in their second year.
The Kraken haven’t even really benefited, yet, from their low standing from last year thanks to the draft, as top pick (No. 4 overall) Shane Wright has barely been able to crack (pun only half intended) the lineup and has now been shipped off to play in the boy auction that is the World Juniors later this month.
Perhaps most impressive is that the Kraken sit where they do and their goaltending has been an exhibition of comedy and despair all season. Martin Jones has a .890 save percentage on the season. His backup Phillip Grubauer has a .882. Grubauer has been OK at even strength, Jones most certainly has not, but they’ve combined to give the Kraken the fourth-worst penalty kill in the league, below 70 percent, and yet here they are. And it’s not like they’re getting pilfered when a man down either, as the Kraken’s expected goals against while shorthanded is sixth-best in the league. Neither goalie can stop a watermelon when on the kill.
So again, what the fuck are they doing here?
To overcome goaltending that bad, there has to be some eye of newt and toe of frog at play. The Kraken are led by Jared McCann and his 12 goals, along with the play of his linemates Matty Beniers and Jordan Eberle. But McCann is scoring on nearly a quarter of every shot he’s taking (23.5 shooting percentage), and that’s not going to continue. Then again, we said the same thing about William Karlsson a few years ago in Vegas and he did end up shooting around 25 percent for the whole season. He’s never matched that again, but for one season the magic potion can last.
Seattle as a whole team can’t really miss right now. They lead the league in even-strength shooting percentage at 10.2 percent, and no team has a bigger gap between their expected goals at evens per 60 minutes than their actual goals. They’re also second in shooting percentage on the power-play behind the Oilers, but the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Beniers may end up a top-tier NHL scorer yet, but he’s the only one who either has a chance of that or who hasn’t proven that he’s definitely not on the Kraken roster. While the fourth-line goals are nice, a team shouldn’t count on Daniel Sprong or Morgan Geekie to continually find twine with 15-20 percent of their shots. It’s still a team of second and third-liners or worse.
That said, the Kraken’s defense is real. Their fourth in attempts against at even-strength and sixth in expected goals against, which has helped mitigate their emo goaltending. As you can see from this from HockeyViz.com, the Kraken give up nothing around their net and keep most shots from the exterior, which means their goalies rarely even see shots that get through. Which is where the Kraken will have to keep it, given that both Jones and Grubauer have been treating most shots that get through like a swarm of wasps.
It is unlikely that the Kraken can keep up this rate with this goaltending for a whole season. When the Knights jumped on the scene right out of the gate they had Marc-Andre Fleury performing miracles in net. The Kraken don’t have nearly enough established scorers to keep outshooting their goalies chasing butterflies at the other end of the ice all season, no matter how good Beniers turns out to be.
It’s still a pretty weak division though, where even the Calgary Flames can’t seem to get their act together. Even if they do, the Kraken can easily ride their banked points to an automatic playoff spot over the Kings or Oilers, who each have their own problems. And maybe they can get a little juice from Wright once he returns from the WJC, though the complaint from Flyers fans about coach Dave Hakstol was he could never find space for young players. But then again, what don’t Flyers fans complain about?
It’ll make for interesting watching come the trade deadline, whether GM Ron Francis pursues deals to clinch the team’s first-ever playoff berth or whether he sticks to whatever long-term plan he has. Teams will be asking for Wright as soon as the phone rings, and only having two drafts means the Kraken aren’t bathing in other prospects. There’s something of a deflation coming for them, but not enough to keep the rest of the season from being very exciting for the league’s newest big-market team and fanbase.