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Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.
In some respects, it feels wrong to imply that something went wrong with Seattle. After all, they were an expansion team, traditionally those are bad in their first season. And yet, it’s hard not to measure the Kraken against the Vegas Golden Knights, who went to posted a 51-24-7 regular season record in their inaugural season and then went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Seattle had the exact same expansion draft rules as Vegas, but they went 27-49-6 in their first season.
So why is it that Vegas thrived while Seattle, given the same rules, floundered? A lot of that comes from the two team’s different handlings of the expansion draft. Going into the expansion draft, Vegas was very proactive in acquiring concessions from teams in exchange for them not taking their players. That allowed them to acquire Reilly Smith, Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch, and a wealth of picks and prospects in exchange for expansion draft considerations. In addition, Vegas leveraged their abundance of cap space to gain even more draft picks in exchange for taking on bad contracts.
Then in the expansion draft, they got a number of diamonds in the rough, including Jonathan Marchessault, Brayden McNabb, Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt, and William Karlsson. They complimented them with some solid veterans including James Neal, David Perron, and most importantly goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The end result is that Vegas had both a great core and enough draft picks to make trades to enhance it when the opportunity presented itself.
By contrast Seattle made exactly zero pre-expansion draft trades. To be fair to Kraken GM Ron Francis, it seems the lesson teams took from the Vegas draft was that it wasn’t worth it to hand the expansion team assets in order to protect their players. Instead, it made more sense for them to simply allow the chips to fall where they may. That said, Francis didn’t even use his cap space to take on bad contracts in exchange for assets and there were plenty of teams in a cap crunch so you’d think that there would have been opportunities there if the Kraken were perhaps a bit more proactive or creative or flexible in their demands.
On top of that, Seattle had a really conservative draft. The Kraken had the option to take Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, Max Domi, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikael Granlund among others. Now there are valid reasons why Seattle passed on all of those and in some cases they were proven right. Price’s knee issues have unfortunately persisted, and his future is unclear. However, overall an unwillingness to take risks resulted in the Kraken entering the season with a fairly bland roster.
They were still expected do better than this though, in part because the Kraken prioritized on assembling a big blueline backed by strong goaltending. The Kraken were hoping that Philip Grubauer, who they signed to a six-year, $35.4 million contract would be their equivalent of Marc-Andre Fleury and on top of that, they felt they had one of the league’s up-and-coming netminders in Chris Driedger.
They weren’t alone in that assessment either. A lot of people questioned Seattle’s ability to score, but felt they would be a frustrating team to play against and they’d be able to eke out a number of 2-1 and 3-2 wins. Instead not only was Seattle’s offense predictably bad, ranking 28th in the league with an average of 2.60 goals per game, but their defense was bottom tier too, ranking 24th with an average of 3.46 goals per game. Grubauer went from being a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2020-21 to posting an 18-31-5 record, 3.16 GAA, and .889 save percentage in 55 games. Driedger was no better, finishing with a 9-14-1 record, 2.96 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 27 games.
So why was a team built so heavily around strong defensive play and goaltending so easy to score on? It seems if you dive a little bit deeper the problem was more their goaltending than defense. In terms of 5vs expected goals allowed, Seattle actually had the sixth fewest in the league with 154.53, which put them roughly on par with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Seattle also allowed the fourth least shots against per 60 in the league at 28.9, which put them between Boston and Calgary. They also tied the Tampa Bay Lightning for the seventh least High Danger Chances Against at 689. All things considered, it looks like the Kraken’s defense did its part, but when the puck did get to the net, Grubauer and Driedger didn’t do their part.
Seattle already made a long-term commitment to both goaltenders, so they’ll likely be back next season, but the silver lining is both of them have shown in the past that they can play at a high level.
It’s telling that one of the first things Seattle did after being eliminated was part ways with goaltending coach Andrew Allen. The hope is that they can get more out of their netminders next season and become the team they envisioned going into the 2021-22 campaign: One that might not thrive offensively but will be frustrating to play against. And on the plus side, one thing their conservative drafting did was put them in a very good cap situation. Seattle has a wealth of space if they want to pursue some big names on the UFA market or make a key trade. For example, the Minnesota Wild are in a cap crunch and have already suggested that they might not be able to afford RFA Kevin Fiala. Seattle is in a perfect position to take advantage of that situation, if they decide to go in that direction.
So while the Kraken didn’t have a good inaugural season, they have some good options going forward.
Players To Watch:
Philipp Grubauer – Grubauer’s performance in 2021-22 was pretty perplexing. He posted a 1.95 GAA and .922 save percentage in 40 games in 2020-21 and while regression from those results was anticipated, he still looked like a safe bet to be an above average starter. After all, he’s been pretty consistent throughout his career. Not counting the 2021-22 campaign, his save percentage has fluctuated between .915-.925, never dipping above or below those ranges in any individual season. So to finish with a .889 save percentage in 2021-22 represents a complete collapse for him. He struggled pretty much all season too. There were individual games where he played well, but actual sustained hot streaks were very few and far between. Maybe the goalie coach change will help him. The Kraken need to hope it does because he’s signed through 2026-27.
Matthew Beniers – One thing the Kraken really lack is a true first line forward. Beniers might prove to be that for them as early as the 2021-22 campaign. He was the first player ever drafted by Seattle – second overall in the 2021 draft – and he couldn’t have had a better 2021-22 campaign. He scored 20 goals and 43 points in 37 games with the University of Michigan and then made the jump to the NHL where he scored three goals and nine points in 10 contests. He should be a serious contender for the Calder Trophy next season.
Jaden Schwartz – Jaden Schwartz is a solid top-six forward, but unfortunately injuries have held him back. The 2021-22 campaign was another example of that. He was limited to 37 games, but he did well when he was able to play, scoring eight goals and 23 points. If he can stay healthy in 2022-23 then he could contribute 45-55 points, which would be huge for Seattle given their underwhelming offense. Unfortunately, Schwartz’s injury history makes me somewhat pessimistic about his chances of avoiding the sidelines for the full campaign.
Chris Driedger – I typically wouldn’t include two goaltenders on this list but was really the story of the Kraken’s first season. Grubauer struggled mightily and there was an opportunity for Driedger, who had emerged as a great backup in Florida, to take advantage of the situation. Instead, Driedger didn’t do much better, posting a 9-14-1 record, 2.96 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 27 contests with Seattle. Driedger doesn’t have the same track record of success that Grubauer’s enjoyed, but Driedger certainly looked like a capable goaltender who was trending in the right direction. Next season will be a big one for him. He’ll be in the middle of his three-year, $10.5 million contract. If he doesn’t perform, he might find himself sent to the minors in favor of Joey Daccord and possibly even bought out in the summer of 2023. I wouldn’t write off Driedger yet though. A bounce back season is entirely feasible.