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The Seattle Kraken Haven’t Found Vegas’s Expansion-Year Magic … Yet

When we launched our NHL prediction model going into this season, one of the big questions we had to answer was what to do with the expansion Seattle Kraken. While the history of expansion teams is generally ugly, littered with some of the worst performances in professional league histories, that appeared to change forever (in the NHL at least) with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. Not only was Vegas better than the typical expansion team, it was the best expansion team in any major pro sport ever — which in turn totally reset the expectations for any and all future first-year clubs.

For Seattle’s projection, we ended up basically splitting the difference between the typically dreadful expansion efforts of the past and Vegas’s spectacular debut — expecting the Kraken to be competent, if not exactly Stanley Cup contenders. In reality, though, things have proven more difficult than that for the Kraken so far. After starting out a mediocre 3-5, the team lost eight of nine games before finally winning again Sunday against the Washington Capitals. That brought Seattle’s record on the season to 5-13 — better than only the 4-12 Ottawa Senators, the 5-15 Montreal Canadiens and the 4-15 Arizona Coyotes. With a mere 7 percent chance to make the playoffs (much less the Stanley Cup final), it’s clear these expansion Kraken are not exactly following in the Golden Knights’ skate grooves yet.

The founding members of the Kraken didn’t look this bad on paper. The team’s Ron Francis-led brain trust used its expansion draft picks and free agency budget to acquire a number of skaters who had been above-average producers (according to Game Score per game relative to position average)1 in 2020-21, including forwards Jordan Eberle, Jared McCann, Yanni Gourde, Jaden Schwartz, Joonas Donskoi, Calle Järnkrok, Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Tanev, and defensemen Mark Giordano, Vince Dunn and Jamie Oleksiak. Seattle also solidified its goaltending with Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, both of whom had been stellar in their own way last season: Grubauer as a Vezina Trophy finalist, backstopping the Colorado Avalanche to the league’s best record, and Driedger as the understudy who stabilized the improving Florida Panthers’ situation in net as highly paid starter Sergei Bobrovsky faltered.

In theory, that group gave Seattle several solid forward lines and D-pairings, plus a capable group in net — a better talent base than most historical expansion teams were ever privy to at their first face-off. While the Kraken could have taken bigger names in the draft, and their free-agency strategy had its share of critics, Seattle still appeared positioned to be more like Vegas than, say, the Atlanta Thrashers. But the way the Kraken and Golden Knights began their initial seasons could hardly be more different:

Individually, some of the newly minted Kraken skaters have actually fared well in the Pacific Northwest. On a per-game basis, Schwartz, Wennberg, Gourde and Tanev are all posting better relative Game Scores this season than they did a year ago, and Eberle, McCann, Giordano and Dunn remain above average. Others have struggled to fit in: Donskoi has slipped back below average after last year’s career-high 17-goal season, Oleksiak’s possession metrics have been poor, and Järnkrok has been one of the least productive forwards in the league so far this season, with 2 points (and a minus-7 rating) despite logging 16.3 minutes of ice time per game.

But overall, the Kraken regulars have not acquitted themselves too horribly this season … except when it comes to the masked men between the pipes.

Seattle’s skaters are OK ... but its goalies aren’t

Minutes and relative Game Score (RGS) per game in 2020-21 and 2021-22 for Seattle Kraken regulars

2020-21 Season 2021-22 Season
Pos Player Team MPG RGS/G MPG RGS/G Diff.
C Jaden Schwartz STL 17.7 +0.03 19.3 +0.41 +0.38
C Alexander Wennberg FLA 18.2 +0.09 19.2 +0.15 +0.06
RW Jordan Eberle NYI 16.8 +0.30 18.6 +0.26 -0.03
RW Joonas Donskoi COL 14.5 +0.22 17.3 -0.12 -0.34
C Yanni Gourde TBL 17.1 +0.30 19.4 +0.35 +0.04
LW Brandon Tanev PIT 14.4 +0.01 14.4 +0.12 +0.11
C Morgan Geekie CAR 9.8 -0.19 12.6 -0.30 -0.11
C Calle Järnkrok NSH 16.8 +0.03 16.3 -0.28 -0.30
C Ryan Donato SJS 12.6 -0.11 12.5 -0.06 +0.05
C Jared McCann PIT 14.1 +0.33 15.1 +0.23 -0.11
C Riley Sheahan BUF 13.3 -0.36 11.5 -0.32 +0.05
C Marcus Johansson MIN 15.9 -0.27 16.9 +0.23 +0.50
D Adam Larsson EDM 19.6 -0.19 21.2 -0.04 +0.15
D Mark Giordano CGY 22.9 +0.34 20.8 +0.15 -0.19
D Jamie Oleksiak DAL 20.5 +0.07 19.2 -0.07 -0.14
D Vince Dunn STL 19.3 +0.12 18.9 +0.11 -0.00
D Jeremy Lauzon BOS 18.7 -0.02 17.4 -0.26 -0.23
D Carson Soucy MIN 15.3 -0.18 16.9 +0.02 +0.19
G Philipp Grubauer COL 59.2 +0.24 55.3 -0.76 -1.00
G Chris Driedger FLA 59.2 +0.44 37.7 -1.88 -2.32

Includes the team’s top 12 forwards, top six defensemen and top two goalies by playing time. Through games of Nov. 21, 2022.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

While the Golden Knights’ debut effort saw a good defensive performance backstopped by the outstanding goaltending of expansion-draft pickup Marc-André Fleury, who helped Vegas finish 11th in save percentage in its maiden campaign, the Kraken have gotten the worst goaltending in the NHL by far -- a whopping 31 points of save percentage worse than anyone else -- during their first season in the league. Grubauer’s save percentage is down 40 points versus last season, going from 16 percent better than league average to 35 percent worse. And Driedger has been even worse in limited duty; his save percentage is down an unbelievable 136 points from a year ago. (For good measure, fellow backup Joey Daccord also has one of the worst save percentages in the league, though his career mark going into this season wasn’t very good to begin with.)

Goaltending being as important (if chaotic) as it is, it is practically impossible not to have a terrible record with a save percentage 53 percent below league average. And as Peter Hassett of the Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks recently pointed out, the goalies can’t blame the rest of the Kraken’s defense. The team is allowing the league’s second-lowest rate of high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and the second-lowest rate of expected goals (based on the location of shots allowed and other factors) per 60 as well. Seattle’s netminders have simply struggled to stop the relatively stoppable shots its defense has conceded, despite what were solid track records for both Grubauer and Driedger coming into the season.

The result has been Seattle picking up just 29.7 percent of the points available in its games,2 which is on pace to be the NHL’s fourth-worst mark by a first-year club since the league started going on its modern expansion binge in 1991-92. (So much for the theory that expansion teams in the NHL’s salary-cap era automatically have a huge built-in advantage.)

The Kraken have been regular-expansion-team bad

Lowest points percentages and goals per game differential for NHL expansion teams in their first seasons since the 1991-92 season

Year Team W L T/OTL* Pts perc. GPG Diff.
1993 Ottawa Senators 10 70 4 14.3% -2.30
2000 Atlanta Thrashers 14 61 11 23.2 -1.74
1992 San Jose Sharks 17 58 5 24.4 -1.75
2022 Seattle Kraken 5 13 1 29.7 -0.89
1993 Tampa Bay Lightning 23 54 7 31.5 -1.04
1999 Nashville Predators 28 47 7 38.4 -0.87
2001 Minnesota Wild 25 44 18 39.3 -0.51
2001 Columbus Blue Jackets 28 45 15 41.0 -0.52
1994 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 33 46 5 42.3 -0.26
1994 Florida Panthers 33 34 17 49.4 +0.00
2018 Vegas Golden Knights 51 31 7 59.6 +0.54

*Includes all games in which a team got a single point — Ties through the 2003-04 season and Overtime or shootout Losses starting in 1999-2000.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

In retrospect, the Golden Knights had a lot of things going for them that Seattle didn’t. For instance, the Kraken don’t have the benefit of opponents getting the mythical “Vegas Flu” when they come to town -- Seattle is only 4-6 at home this season, while the Golden Knights were 29-12 in their expansion year at home. Vegas also had the benefit of opposing general managers attempting to navigate the expansion-draft process for the first time in 17 years, with all-new rules and regulations in place. Because of this, other teams made mistakes for Vegas that they did not repeat for Seattle. And the Kraken deliberately played the expansion game with an eye toward a longer building timeline than Vegas took to contend anyway. Although the initial returns on some of Seattle’s splashier summer moves (i.e., Grubauer’s six-year, $35.4 million contract) don’t look great, it’s far too early to render much of a judgment on Seattle -- provided that we remove the impossible-to-live-up-to yardstick of Vegas in 2017-18 from the picture.

And in fact, things could start looking better for the Kraken sooner rather than later. Just based on goals scored and allowed, this team has played better than its record would indicate; according to the PythagenPuck estimate, Seattle should have at least one more win than it currently has, if not more. And from other, more possession-minded metrics, such as Corsi -- the share of all on-ice shot attempts a team piles up at even strength -- we might have actually expected the Kraken to be above .500, perhaps significantly so: Seattle ranks ninth in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 and sixth in the share of on-ice scoring chances. Based on those fundamental factors, it would not be surprising if the Kraken begin to turn their inaugural season around before too long, particularly if their goaltending shows any improvement at all. (No NHL team has had a collective save percentage below .860 since the 1993-94 Senators, and it’s hard to imagine any group of goalies in today’s game sustaining that level of ineptitude over an entire season of games.)

To date, though, the Kraken’s first season has been more about finding cult heroes and building a connection with local fans than actually winning games. Any thought that this team would charge out of the gates with the same velocity as the Golden Knights did a few years ago has been dispelled already. Now it’s a question of whether Seattle can fight back against its long playoff odds and dig out of its early hole. Despite its poor early record, the talent might still be there -- even if the Kraken aren’t as good as the Golden Knights were when they first started out.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. A holistic performance metric that incorporates not just scoring but also on-ice team goals and shot attempts, blocked shots, faceoffs and other categories. (You can download Game Score data from NHL history, updated daily, here.)

  2. Accounting for the fact that overtime and shootout games carry 3 available points, while games decided in regulation carry just 2.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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