SEATTLE (AP) — For all the excitement and anticipation leading up to the first puck drop, the inaugural season for the Seattle Kraken ended up looking like nearly every other NHL expansion season from the past 30 years.
The comparisons with the last expansion team, the Golden Knights, were inevitable and the high bar set by Vegas by winning the Western Conference in its first season almost ensured Seattle’s first outing was going be disappointing at some level.
Perhaps not this disappointing.
There were injuries and illness — a concern about COVID-19 cases nearly derailed the first game in Vegas. Goalkeeping was poor early, the defense was leaky at times and scoring was up and down. The Kraken were regularly competitive and only rarely overmatched. But it took the better part of three months for Seattle to successfully execute coach Dave Hakstol’s system on a consistent basis.
“Sometimes we look at two periods and we play unbelievable, we control the game. And then we have a lapse and everything kind of crumbles a little bit,” goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “So we need to find the structure and the belief in each other and make sure we’re consistent enough next year.”
Seattle finished the season 27-49-6, including a miserable nine-game losing streak in December and January and a stretch of 11 losses in 12 games in February and March. Making the playoffs was an afterthought even before the All-Star break.
But there were some signs of promise in the final six weeks. Seattle went 10-12-0 over its final 22 games, and while it wasn’t a winning mark, it gave the Kraken something they feel they can carry into next season.
“I think we’ve showed ourselves and other people that we’re not out of place against a lot of these teams,” defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “Some nights we’ve been right in the game, and I think we’ve showed that we could skate with some of the best. And I think we’ve seen progress throughout the year.”
The Kraken saw several players have career years when provided an opportunity to have a bigger role.
The biggest breakout came from forward Jared McCann, who led Seattle in goals (27), points (50) and was rewarded with a five-year contract extension. Defenseman Vince Dunn had a career-best 28 assists and earned a spot on the power play units. Ryan Donato scored 16 goals and was playing on the top line late in the season. Defensemen Adam Larsson and Carson Soucy each had career bests in goals with eight and 10, respectively.
Goaltending was expected to be one of Seattle’s strengths with the combo of Grubauer and Chris Driedger. But injuries and defensive issues early in the season created weakness that took months to stabilize.
Grubauer’s 3.16 goals-against average was the highest of his career. Driedger wasn’t much better at 2.92.
Seattle could move forward with the pair for next season and hope a year in the system leads to better results. The Kraken could also look to make a move — most likely with Driedger — with promising young goalie Joey Daccord coming off a stellar season for Charlotte in the AHL.
Seattle got a look at the future with the 10 games Matty Beniers, the first draft pick in franchise history, played at the end of the season. Beniers was an immediate upgrade to Seattle’s attack and showed why he was the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft.
Beniers had a point in nine of the 10 games he played, including three goals. He played on the top line with Donato and Jordan Eberle, and looked comfortable on the bigger stage of the NHL.
Seattle also signed second-round pick defenseman Ryker Evans to an entry-level contract, giving him the shot a making the roster before next season. The Kraken also have the third-best odds of landing the No. 1 pick in next week’s NHL draft lottery.
Seattle will have significant roster stability and salary cap space going into next season. The team only has three unrestricted free agents — Riley Sheahan, Victor Rask and Derrick Pauliot. Another seven are restricted free agents, highlighted by Donato.
The Kraken have a projected $23 million in cap space and draft capital, making it likely this will be an offseason of roster additions.
“The way we’ve got to win, the way we’re gonna win is to find the right identity. I think we’ve found that,” forward Yanni Gourde said. “There’s some times that we weren’t executing, but we have the recipe, we know what to do.”