Inside the NHL
So, the Kraken are only a month or so away from opening training camp and there’s already cautious optimism surrounding a team that finished with the NHL’s third worst record last season.
Not that anyone is predicting a Stanley Cup championship. But I’ve seen references online to them being dark-horse playoff contenders and I don’t believe that’s far-fetched. As previously mentioned, there were predictive models that felt they could sneak into the playoffs last season if everything went right.
As we know, everything did not, from players underperforming, the goaltending not holding up, COVID-19 setbacks, injuries and a very chaotic early schedule and practice routine due to their home arena not being ready for preseason. Combine all that with a high-energy on-ice system coach Dave Hakstol expected every single game, it was a recipe for trouble.
But one big reason many folks, myself included, feel it will go better this time is the depth added this summer. Now, whenever “depth” gets discussed in a professional sports context, the assumption is it’s in the bottom parts of a roster. The term “depth players” contributes to this as it often refers to those less than elite.
But you can also have strong “depth” in elite parts of a team and have it trickle down to the roster’s bottom. That’s what happened with the Kraken forward lines this summer, the key piece being when winger Oliver Bjorkstrand was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Though Bjorkstrand can play either wing, we’ll assume he’s primarily used on the left side. We can quibble about which of the top two lines to use him on compared to Jared McCann, but I’ll assume the Kraken put Bjorkstrand — who has performed at a top level longer than McCann — on the No. 1 trio for now.
That leaves McCann at No. 2 and suddenly Jaden Schwartz looks like a third-line left wing. That’s no small development, given Schwartz was the team’s biggest free agent acquisition last summer outside of goalie Philipp Grubauer. But it’s not inconceivable, given Schwartz has been injury-plagued largely due to his go-to-the-net style and is now a few campaigns removed from his last 20-goal season.
And now, with this lineup, Ryan Donato, a 16-goal-scorer last season, becomes the fourth line left wing. Donato had the fifth most goals of any Kraken player. So, when he’s a fourth liner, that’s some kind of left side depth — one that TSN analytics specialist Travis Yost proclaimed might be the NHL’s best.
But the Kraken didn’t gain that depth by re-signing Donato. No, they gained it trading for Bjorkstrand, who provides elite depth up high that’s trickled down to the bottom lines and made the team’s fifth-best scorer a “depth” guy.
Kraken general manager Ron Francis even as much as called Donato that when he told me right before re-signing him that he was still looking to add another “depth” forward.
And the only reason Donato even makes the left side’s fourth line is because Brandon Tanev switches back over to the right wing under this scenario. Tanev spent much of his injury-shortened debut Kraken season on left wing, but plays both and moving over frees a regular spot for Donato.
The Kraken’s right side isn’t as strong as the left but is still quite deep. You can choose between Jordan Eberle and free agent acquisition Andre Burakovsky for the top-line and I’d put veteran Eberle wherever centerman Matty Beniers plays.
Assuming the Kraken make Beniers their No. 1 center — and why not, if he plays as he did at last season’s end? — that leaves Eberle on the top line, Burakovsky on the second line and Tanev as the third line right wing. Then, you’ve got Joonas Donskoi as the fourth liner looking to rebound from a career-worst two-goal campaign.
Donskoi scored 17 goals in only 51 games with Colorado in 2020-21, so again, as with Donato on the left side, having him project as a fourth liner is some kind of development.
But it’s not as if Donskoi was intentionally added for right side depth. It’s the guys higher up creating this scenario.
And even Donskoi’s fourth line status isn’t guaranteed, depending on what happens at center. Don’t forget, the Kraken also have top draft pick Shane Wright looking to crack their lineup at center.
If we assume Beniers is the top-line center, you’d go with Yanni Gourde — who, incidentally, should be named team captain in training camp — as the second line guy, followed by Alexander Wennberg third. That leaves fourth line duties to Morgan Geekie. However, if Wright makes the team beyond a nine-game trial limit after which he’d need to return to the junior ranks, you might see Geekie moved to right wing — putting pressure on Donskoi to remain in the lineup.
We won’t even get into penalty killing specialist Karson Kuhlman, top minor leaguer Kole Lind and others. There will likely be plenty of talent sitting up in the press box most nights if everyone stays healthy.
But there’s the catch: You know the team won’t be injury free.
And that’s where depth comes in. Right now, five of the six forwards on the Kraken’s top two projected lines scored at least 21 goals last season with rookie Beniers the lone exception.
The wingers are mostly interchangeable on either side and some — such as McCann — can play center. So, if a top guy goes down — as happened to both Schwartz and Tanev last season — the impact doesn’t need to be as devastating.
That’s what true depth brings. The Kraken have it in their forward ranks. Not as much on defense, which is why nobody is yet plotting a Cup parade route.
But the Kraken forwards collectively were the weakest part of last season’s team. Now, with Bjorkstrand added and the depth impact that’s had throughout the roster on both wings, they could be the strongest.