Kraken’s latest struggles show need to guard against complacency while seeking fundamental growth
Inside the NHL
The shot tally midway through its last loss on Tuesday night was an indicator of the immense challenge that awaited Kraken coach Dave Hakstol.
New York Islanders 24, Kraken 6.
Of course, the Kraken was admittedly lacking in energy after a road trip through Western Canada. The problem was that the previous night in Vancouver, they had been outscored 46-27 in a loss that mirrored the score and play in Tuesday’s subsequent loss, the team’s fifth straight.
And the game before, in Calgary, they were outshot 37-21 and only the stellar play of goaltender Philipp Grubauer held the line. Now losing to the Flames is not undignified, they are the hottest team in the NHL. But, well, back to the Islanders, it was a team the Kraken shut out just three weeks ago in Long Island, New York, in arguably their best game of the entire season.
The islands had also only won once in the previous five contests, so, in theory, they were more ripe for the picking. Which is a roundabout way of saying that the Kraken, tired or not, shows early signs of playing the ropes, no matter who the opponent is.
It’s the last thing Hakstol and those running this struggling freshman franchise need in two months. Yes, the March 21 trade deadline is approaching and guys like Mark Giordano, Calle Jarnkrok and anyone else over 26 without a long-term contract will be hearing their names mentioned in the rumours.
And yes, the Kraken’s system, requiring 60 minutes of killer effort every night to make up for a lack of goals, leaves them prone to mental disappointments when they narrowly fail like it happened last week in Winnipeg.
But up until the All-Star break, they had had a great multi-week streak in which they showed they could hang on to the best in the league.
This made them an interesting team to follow, a team that could still win other local fans. But there was nothing to like about the first 30 minutes of the Islanders’ game, which resembled the last 30 minutes of the Canucks’ previous game, with a few exceptions.
Hakstol said the team is constantly evaluating players with an eye on who will stay for future seasons which will hopefully go better than this one.
“It’s day-to-day that the assessment happens,” Hakstol said. “And that happens as part of the most important thing which is working every day to win games.
“We are working hard to build. We work hard to grow. It must continue. At this time of year, the focus should be on winning matches and then the big picture is always there.
Fair enough, but at 16-33-4 there aren’t many wins going. One thing Hakstol has been doing recently is seating players such as Morgan Geekie and, on Tuesday, Joonas Donskoi, whose production has stalled.
Geekie has only scored three goals all season — two since opening night — and that’s not enough for a guy who’s been a third-line center for most of the season. Of course, this is his first full NHL campaign and even when he’s not scoring he’s shown an ability to be creative with the puck. He’s also shown a burst of energy since being left out in the Calgary game.
Now he has to bring that to every game.
“He’s hit a level he probably hasn’t been all year,” Hakstol said after Geekie’s comeback against Vancouver. “We saw flare-ups of it, but he did it pretty consistently (Monday) night. So that was a nice breakthrough.
Donskoi is different, being a multi-season NHL veteran. Despite his 15 assists, one goal in 51 games raises all sorts of questions for him. There are nights where he too goes unnoticed and that just can’t happen when the pucks aren’t already for him.
Watching Yanni Gourde on the post-game interview podium after the loss to the Islanders, he looked battered, exhausted and ticked off. Gourde scored one of Kraken’s two goals, but even when he’s not scoring, you can’t often fail to notice he’s on the ice.
Donskoy is far from a lost cause. But he shows he’s not the guy lie down on. He’s a good supporting cast member when there are top scorers around him, like what his former teams in Colorado and San Jose had. But this Kraken team doesn’t have one. We must have some, and quickly, for next season.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Hakstol played down a suggestion that he was kicking guys in and out to prevent complacency from setting in. It’s been a strategy used all season – largely out of necessity – with a crowded defensive core and has seen Carson Soucy, Haydn Fleury and Will Borgen show improvements after sitting out for extended stretches.
Instead, Hakstol insisted his team had a ‘goal’ in recent months, knowing they had to work 60 minutes into the night to score rare wins despite the distractions to come in the trade deadlines.
“At any point in a season there are all kinds of reasons to spread and go in different directions,” he said. “You have to find the main reason to be together and to build together and to put importance and priority on winning together.”
Talk to opposing scouts who gather at Kraken matches in anticipation of the Meat Elimination at the Carcass Trade Deadline and they’ll tell you that this roster, expansion team or not, is better than its stats. and his record. They will also tell you that he needs more elite players.
The Kraken will inevitably land a better prospect in next summer’s draft given their record. But there are risks in losing the rest of the way to increase the lottery chances for young players who may or may not succeed. Hasn’t really helped the Buffalo Sabers and New Jersey Devils brands lately.
Additionally, the Kraken have a way of attracting elite players: by using some of that precious salary cap space they’ve hoarded. Between that and the draft picks, there will be better players to come. But for now, they need to establish a base to build on, a base that paying customers can actually bear to watch.
This foundation has shown signs of weakening. And it will be Hakstol’s job – and arguably the biggest challenge – to ensure that any tangible gains since the start of the season remain intact.