Kraken Have Solutions to Their Early Defensive Struggles

The start to the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural season has not gone exactly according to plan. The team sits at a 1-3-1 record five games into the season. Though the team remains in fifth place in the Pacific Division, and it is still early, this is certainly not the start that the city of Seattle was hoping for.

Perhaps more concerning is the utter failure of what should’ve been the team’s strongest attribute: defense. With a defense corps employing former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano, and reigning Vezina Trophy finalist Phillip Grubauer in net, the Kraken were expected to excel in the defensive zone, even if offense was difficult to come by. Seattle has indeed struggled to find the back of the net, sitting at 26th in the league in goals-for per game, but also sits at 24th in goals-against per game.

If the Kraken hope to remain in the playoff hunt, they will need to fix one or both of these problems. Given the personnel available, the more realistic solution is to address the defense. Here’s a look at what is ailing the defense corps and how they can fix it.

Kraken’s Slow Starts

The major problem affecting the Kraken is their slow starts to games. In four of the five games played so far, the Kraken have conceded the first goal. In each of those games, that goal came within the first ten minutes. It is very difficult to win hockey games when always playing from behind.

Against the Vegas Golden Knights, both Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Marchessault managed goals within the first 10 minutes. Against the Philadelphia Flyers, Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, and Derick Brassard all potted markers before the end of the first period. The Kraken have thrice left the first frame down by at least two goals, and it’s simply not a sustainable model for being a winning hockey team.

Adam Larsson, Seattle Kraken
Adam Larsson, Seattle Kraken (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, to be fair, the offense also deserves some blame for this issue. Scoring the first goal is just as important as not conceding it. However, when that first goal against is consistently occurring so early in the game, the defensive side of the ice needs to be shored up before addressing the other end.

Seattle’s Defensive Coverage

In watching some of the goals that the Kraken have given up thus far, one issue seems to repeat itself: failure to cover all three attacking players. Oftentimes, while the first two opponents have been well-covered, the trailer has been left open in prime scoring locations. Take a look at this clip from the opening game against the Golden Knights:

In this clip, Kraken defensemen Adam Larsson (SEA6) and Jamie Oleksiak (SEA24) did a good job of covering the first two Vegas forwards, Chandler Stephenson (VGK20) and Mark Stone (VGK61). However, winger Max Pacioretty (VGK67) was left wide open on the left side and had the time to pick his spot on Grubauer upon receiving the pass.

Related: 3 Takeaways From the Kraken’s Loss to the Devils

Now, to be fair, the Golden Knights are one of the strongest transition teams in the league. This was a very effectively executed 3 on 2 that was difficult to defend. But here’s another example against the New Jersey Devils. In this play, the Devils scored from in-zone possession rather than on the rush. However, the same sort of poor coverage was the issue, as Jimmy Vesey was left open in the slot.

At the start of the clip, the defense is in good position. Mark Giordano (SEA5) and Vince Dunn (SEA29) each have a forward covered at the front of the net, and Morgan Geekie (SEA67) is covering the third forward. However, as the puck moves across the blue line, things begin to break down.

Geekie gets caught watching the puck, leaving Andreas Johnsson (NJD11) open to receive a pass on the right circle. Geekie immediately reacts and tries to return to Johnsson, but Giordano, sensing the breakdown, also moves towards Johnsson in an attempt to block the shot he is anticipating. In doing so, he leaves Jimmy Vesey (NJD16) alone in the slot. Johnsson slides the puck to Vesey, who makes no mistake in converting.

This play is certainly different from the Vegas one on the surface, but they are similar in that the Kraken failed to properly cover all three attacking players on both occasions. The same type of breakdown occurred on other occasions, including Ryan Ellis’s goal for the Flyers and Eeli Tolvanen’s goal for the Nashville Predators.

How Can the Kraken Fix It?

Interestingly enough, much of this problem appears to be the forwards’ fault. On the rush, the third man in is generally supposed to be covered by a backchecking forward. In-zone, the third forward is the responsibility of the center. The Kraken’s forwards definitely need to improve their defensive play.

That said, there is also a lack of awareness on the defense’s part. On Pacioretty’s goal, Oleksiak appeared to have no idea that a third forward was even in the zone, leaving Pacioretty far too open, even for a 3 on 2 rush. On Vesey’s goal, Giordano abandoned the player he was covering. He did so as a result of Geekie’s mistake, but it was still a poor choice to leave Vesey uncovered in the slot.

Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken
Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The solutions that come to mind are twofold: an assessment of forwards’ defensive responsibilities and improved communication. The Kraken’s forwards need to be better on the backcheck as well as in-zone. They need to be aware of their responsibilities and execute properly. Much of the onus in that regard falls on Dave Hakstol and his coaching staff. Perhaps the defensive system as a whole needs to be rethought in order to better activate the defensive forwards. As for communication, it appears clear that Seattle is failing to mesh defensively. Growing pains are to be expected on an expansion team, but chemistry needs to improve quickly if the Kraken hope to eliminate goals against like Vesey’s, and communication will be paramount in that pursuit.

Finally, Seattle will need better play from their star netminder. In four games, Grubauer has a 4.01 goals against average and an .867 save percentage, to go along with -3.09 goals saved above expected (per Evolving Hockey). With a hefty $5.9 million cap hit, he’ll have to improve his play.

It is still very early in the season, and there is no reason to panic. But the Kraken will have to address their defensive issues and quickly if they hope to make a playoff appearance.

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