Since their inception, the Seattle Kraken pushed back on comparisons to the Vegas Golden Knights, who rewrote the rules for NHL expansion teams by making the Stanley Cup Final in their first season.
“From day one, we’ve said we’re not Vegas,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said on Monday.
There’s no debating that. Through 33 games in the 2017-18 season, the Golden Knights had a points percentage of .670 and were atop the Pacific Division. Through 33 games, Seattle has a .364 points percentage and reside in at the bottom of the Pacific — which is where you might expect to find a kraken, but not the Kraken.
This is a performance that pundits and predictive models didn’t foresee happening. Even those dubious about the Kraken’s potential for first-season success weren’t predicting a stumble out of the gate of this magnitude for the NHL’s newest franchise.
What’s gone wrong? There’s a burgeoning cottage industry of in-season autopsies from hockey analysts like Micah Blake McCurdy and Jack Han, and a comprehensive one from ‘JFresh.’
But we decided to go to the source and ask Ron Francis what’s gone wrong for the Kraken, what the plan is going forward and what this bummer of a season means to the NHL’s newest market.
ESPN: The Seattle Kraken have a .364 points percentage through 33 games. How does this track with internal expectations for the team?
Francis: I think it’s certainly been more challenging than we were hoping for when the season started. I think when we looked at things, and other people looked at things in the offseason, I thought we’d be a competitive team. You’re always hoping that things go right for you, that you have a chance to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for us, it’s gone the other way: Instead of going right, some things have gone wrong.
But the plan all along was to build this thing right from the ground up, long-term. Have a strong successful franchise. That’s how we drafted. That’s why we kept our cap space available. So that hasn’t changed.
ESPN: But has this lack of success given new clarity to the plan? You’re not the Vegas Golden Knights, going to the Stanley Cup Final in your first season. You’re on a more traditional expansion team track. Does this season’s record give you a sense of what the next three or four years need to look like?
Francis: I think you have to assess where you are, and act accordingly. For us, the worst thing to do would have been to panic and change course and start giving up assets for pieces that may or may not turn things around this year. The tough part is biting the bullet, sticking to the plan, drafting and developing well and trying to improve your team in ways that you can. At the core of it is not doing something now that affects us in a negative way two or three years down the road.
ESPN: What’s gone wrong this season? Where have the Kraken missed the mark?
Francis: In the summertime, people looked at our team and thought our goaltending was certainly a strength. We kinda struggled in that area. I’m not trying to make excuses for our guys. It was a challenge coming into a new environment. We had some COVID cases right before the season started which affected some team-building stuff. You’re trying to learn a new system and learn about new players. There was a lack of practice time, five games to start the season on the road … we struggled to get everything under wraps.
As a result, we were giving up too many odd-man rushes, especially early in the season. We’ve done a better job of cleaning that up lately, but when you do that, it affects your goaltender’s confidence. We’ve had games where we played well enough to win — and probably deserved to win — and we struggled to find the back of the net and found a way to lose. I think that puts pressure on a goaltender, too.
ESPN: Some expected you to struggle to score goals. No one saw Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger combining for a .874 save percentage. How much has that impacted the season?
Francis: It’s not a secret. I think if you talk to them, they’d say the same thing: They’d like to be better. We’re hoping we can get that straightened out here, going forward.
ESPN: I read a piece by hockey analyst JFresh who wrote that the Kraken have allowed 28.2 goals above expected, based on the quality of chances their goalies have faced. It seems like the defense is doing a good job in limiting high-danger chances and disrupting offense. How much of this lack of success as a team just comes down to an inability to get the average save made?
Francis: That’s certainly a part of it. There’s no doubt about it. But it also seems like when we make a mistake, we tend to make a beauty. Never a little one. That’s factored in as well, too. But, you know, there are a number of things we can get better on. Our guys are still battling and competing hard, which you like to see. And hopefully we start to get results for everyone in the lineup, goaltenders included.
ESPN: You have Philipp Grubauer for five more seasons, including two with a full no-trade clause. Are you worried about him not being the franchise goalie you expected?
Francis: No. If you look at his career, I think he struggled a little bit going from Washington to Colorado as well. Look, this was a guy who was a finalist for the Vezina last year. I’m not giving him a total free pass. I think if you talked to him, he would say there are things he needs to be better at and there are saves he needs to make. But I still think he’s a goaltender that can be good for us moving forward, as we build around him and increase our team.
ESPN: I’ve watched your team a bunch this season. As you mentioned, there are nights when you get the saves but don’t get the goals. There are nights when you don’t get the saves but get the goals. It just seems like the Kraken can’t get both facets of the team clicking at the same time.
Francis: I think that’s a real good assessment of how our season has gone to this point, right? [Laughs] There are nights where we look good and don’t get the results. And there are other nights where we need to be better.
The other thing is — and I’m not looking to sit here and make excuses, because every team has been dealing with it — but this has not been a normal year, with guys in and out of the lineup with COVID and injuries and stuff. We don’t have the five years of draft picks and depth on our American Hockey League team that other [franchises] have. It becomes a little bit more challenging for us.
ESPN: Kevin Kurz of The Athletic caused a stir recently when he asked, “At what point are we allowed to discuss the Kraken’s seemingly overvaluing analytics, thereby resulting in their bungling the expansion draft?” How do you respond to that?
Francis: We said from day one that you don’t go 100% analytics and you don’t go 100% eye test. It’s a balance of the two. That’s what we did in this case. We had our scouts out there trying to watch games in a unique environment with taxi squads and COVID and so forth. And you’re also doing your analytic work as well. But for people to think that GMs were going to make same mistakes they made four years prior in the Vegas expansion draft was pretty naïve. They learned from that. Things were going to be different.
So since those [trades] weren’t there, we took a different approach and tried to maintain our cap space, which we still have as we get into who might be available in free agency or who teams might have to move because of their contracts. We’re still in a position to work at that. We’re also building through the draft: We had a solid one last year and I think we can do the same this year.
ESPN: How would you assess the job Dave Hakstol has done this season as head coach?
Francis: I think he’s been good. I mean, you come into it with the challenges early with COVID and with playing five road games in eight days on the road. You’re trying to implement a system, you’re trying to learn about other teams … there’s a lot going on at the start of the season. But I think we’re much better now than we were at the start of the year. I’m comfortable with the job Dave has done at this point, and I know he’ll continue to do better as we move forward.
ESPN: Did I see Hakstol shaved? What a bummer. I loved the “Evil Dave” goatee as a point of demarcation from his days with the Flyers.
Francis: [Laughs] We’re trying everything right now.
ESPN: As you said, teams weren’t willing to make the mistakes they made last time in the expansion draft. Well, at the trade deadline, they’re still prone to make mistakes. You have nine players with some level of trade protection, five pending UFAs and six pending RFAs. Given what you’ve seen from this group, how active do you expect to be as a seller?
Francis: We’re no different than any other team. You see what’s out there. Who’s looking for what. If you have something [that] makes sense, you do it. If you don’t, you don’t. But it’s certainly something we’ll look at when we get closer to that point, for sure.
ESPN: We’ve done a lot on what’s gone wrong for your team this season. What are some of the aspects of this Kraken team that you’re happy with, or that you see improving?
Francis: You have to look at the big picture. At what we’re trying to get to. We’ve got good people in our organization that are working hard, trying to build the basis of what we want to do moving forward. I think our facilities are outstanding — both our practice facility and at Climate Pledge [Arena].
Our fan base, the people coming to the rink, have been very vocal and supportive, and I think the guys have been very appreciative of that. The guys also appreciate how they’ve been treated by the city. There are a lot of positives. We have to continue with the plan and get incrementally better every year.
ESPN: Are you worried at all about this season’s impact on growing fans in a new market?
Francis: Anytime you’re not having a great year, you’re worried about that. But our fans have been tremendous in the support they’re showing. They understand we’re an expansion team and it takes time to build it the right way. The attendance has been good. They’ve been loud and supportive.
ESPN: One of the things that you and the front office have preached is that Vegas was an anomaly. That you can’t be judged by Vegas’s first-year success. That’s fair. But you have a fan base that knows what that team did, knows you had the same draft rules and sees that you have a 0.7% chance of making the playoffs right now. What do you say to them?
Francis: We’re different than Vegas. It’s been pretty clear. It was the first time those GMs had gone through those rules. Teams had a little over a year to prepare for it. This time, they had four years before they got to us. Vegas didn’t have anybody on the outside affecting their draft. We had Vegas on the outside, able to affect our draft, which they ultimately did in making a few trades with some teams. It’s a totally different scenario.
I remember reading some place that [Vegas] felt going into their season that they had a five-year plan to build it right. Then things changed when they started playing the way they played and they went in a different direction. But from day one for us, we want to make sure that we’re building it right from the ground up so we can be a solid team when we get there. Meanwhile, we want to do everything we can to make sure we can get into the playoffs every year. This year it hasn’t gone the way we wanted, to this point. But it’s not for a lack of effort.