SEATTLE — 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.