NEW YORK — Dave Hakstol isn’t entirely sure how his team is going to respond during the stretch run, but the Seattle Kraken coach can’t wait to find out.
During a stop in Winnipeg, Hakstol exuded enthusiasm when asked about how his team has taken the important step of battling for top spot in the Pacific Division after enduring plenty of expansion team growing pains last season.
After snapping the Detroit Red Wings five-game winning streak on Saturday with a 4-2 victory, the Kraken improved to 32-18-6 (70 points). Seattle are in the midst of a hotly-contested battle with the Vegas Golden Knights (72 points), Los Angeles Kings (71 points) and Edmonton Oilers (67 points).
“We’re where we want to be, in terms of the middle of a playoff battle. That’s where you want to be at this time of year,” said Hakstol, who has done an excellent job in his second stint as an NHL bench boss. “The things we’ve talked about, in terms of what our goals are and things like that, those remain behind closed doors, but we’re in the fight with a bunch of other really good teams.
“Now you have to have that presence and the ability to take advantage of every opportunity and come out the other side at the end of this race on the right side of the line. You’re pretty invigorated to be right in the middle of that fight and that battle. The attitude and the mentality of this group has been outstanding. There’s a quiet confidence and a quiet edge to them.”
The Kraken have certainly caught some teams by surprise this season, though they were projected to take a step forward after finishing 27-49-6 in 2021-22.
They might not be the flashiest bunch, but they play a fast game and have a pretty sound structure.
The Kraken also have solid depth, both up front where Hakstol likes to roll four lines, and on defence, where Vince Dunn is among those players having an excellent season with nine goals and 40 points in 56 games.
They’ve also got unsung heroes like Daniel Sprong, who has 15 goals and 30 points in 46 games while playing fourth line minutes, to go along with highly-touted rookie Matty Beniers, the second overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
“We have an understanding of what makes us successful when we’re playing our game,” said Kraken winger Brandon Tanev. “Definitely one of our strengths as a group is playing fast and making things difficult for whoever we are playing against. Putting them under pressure and transitioning fast.”
Beniers is thriving in his first full season (18 goals, 40 points in 56 games) and remains the front-runner to win the Calder Trophy.
“His ability, his presence and his poise on the ice, his competitiveness, those are all of the things everybody can see by watching him play,” said Hakstol. “One of the things that isn’t as apparent until you get to know him as a person is just the substance that comes with this young man. He’s got a natural leadership presence and that’s something that’s going to show through more and more over the next few years as he truly establishes himself in this league.
“But as a young guy, he has a poise, a presence and a drive that you don’t teach. Just some of those natural characteristics. His teammates feel that, they know that and because of that, he’s been able to be one of the guys who is a driver for us.”
The goaltending has been a bit up and down at times for the Kraken this season, but Philipp Grubauer seems to be finding his groove.
Grubauer has made four consecutive starts and allowed two goals or fewer in three of those.
That’s the type of goaltending the Kraken will need from Grubauer and Martin Jones as the intensity picks up.
“We play a good systematic game and when we do that, it gives us success,” said Kraken defenceman Jamie Oleksiak. “We’ve got four-plus lines and eight D that can all jump in. When you have that depth and guys that are going to play within the system and trust each other, that’s been a key for us. We don’t try and get too fancy, we don’t shy away from things. We just kind of play within our game.
“This year, if you look at the teams we’ve beat, that’s very encouraging. Boston, Toronto and on the road as well. Those are tough things to do and it’s something we can look back on and see that we can compete with those guys on a nightly basis.”
While Hakstol and his players are going to keep the focus on the ice, there are plenty of folks wondering what GM Ron Francis might have up his sleeve ahead of the March 3 trade deadline.
“You want to put your team in a perfect situation to win hockey games and we have a few more weeks until the trade deadline and we’re excited about that,” said Kraken centre Yanni Gourde. “At the end of the day, all you can control is today and focus on the game that is ahead of you and not worry about the stuff of the ice. It can’t become a distraction.”
That’s true, but Gourde saw what it meant when Julien BriseBois brought in new linemates for him on a revamped third line as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020. BriseBois added Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow to the fold before Tampa captured the Stanley Cup.
Those moves were meant to bring in players who played a certain role, making the Lightning more defensively responsible and tougher to play against.
Francis upgraded the offensive talent during the offseason. He made a trade to acquire Oliver Bjorkstrand from the Columbus Blue Jackets and signed fellow winger Andre Burakovsky in free agency after he captured the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche.
Francis also made an astute pickup during the campaign when he plucked 2017 first-rounder Eeli Tolvanen off waivers from the Nashville Predators to further bolster the forward group.
“We’ve taken a big step from last year and we’re still taking steps in the right direction,” said Gourde. “We’re building our team and our identity the right way. We’ve just got to keep building and there’s always room for improvement. You can never rest in this league. It’s a never-ending process and that’s how it is for the rest of the year.”
BLUES CONTINUE RELOAD
My colleagues who follow the Toronto Maple Leafs have you closely covered when it comes to Friday’s late night trade news involving St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly and fellow centre Noel Acciari. But I’ve got some quick thoughts to share on the matter before moving on to what it means for several contenders in the Western Conference.
First and foremost, don’t be concerned that it’s been a bit of a down year for O’Reilly when it comes to his point production (12 goals, 20 points in 41 games this season). Much of that is injury related, not an impending sign of a player in decline.
O’Reilly is a consummate pro and when the games matter most, he’s a guy his teammates and coaches can count on.
He thrives in those situations.
And he’s a winner, that’s why so many teams were thinking about putting packages together to try and acquire him for a playoff run.
Adding Acciari was a smart move by Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who brought in two guys who play hard, are defensively conscious and can contribute offensively while also bolstering the penalty kill.
Both players were highly sought after by teams throughout the league. But there was probably a mix of disappointment and relief for some teams in the West — and specifically the Central Division — who were unable to land O’Reilly.
No, none of those teams acquired O’Reilly but they won’t have to face him until the Stanley Cup at the earliest either.
O’Reilly is the type of player teams were thinking about when considering who they would like to use against Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars or Mark Scheiefle and Pierre-Luc Dubois with the Winnipeg Jets.
The same could be said for clubs in the Pacific who would be preparing to go up against Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers or Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights, among others.
You get the idea.
Now, the focus will be on how O’Reilly is going to match up in the first round against the likes of Brayden Point when the Maple Leafs go head-to-head with the Lightning.
Should the Maple Leafs finally advance past the first round for the first time since 2004, imagine the intrigue of a matchup between O’Reilly and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins in Round 2?
As for Blues GM Doug Armstrong, he has made the biggest impact on the March 3 NHL trade deadline so far and he’s not finished yet.
Having moved pending unrestricted free agents Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola, O’Reilly and Acciari, the focus shifts to feisty forward Ivan Barbashev, who is attracting plenty of interest around the league.
Armstrong has already acquired a number of future assets (the Blues accumulated three first-round picks in the 2023 NHL Draft) and cleared valuable cap space to bring in some quality pieces to revamp the forward group like he did in 2019. That or to consider bringing back O’Reilly, depending on how things go over the next several months.
Another interesting storyline to monitor will be whether Armstrong looks to shake up things on defence by finding a deal for one of his blue liners with term either prior to the deadline or during the offseason.
The hockey world lost one of the great people in the sport earlier this week when Paul Jerrard lost his quiet battle with cancer at the age of 57.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Jerrard was highly respected for his work behind the bench in both the American Hockey League and the NHL as an assistant coach, most recently spending time at the NCAA level with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Jerrard also enjoyed a decade long professional playing career as a defenceman. The ninth round by the Rangers in the 1983 NHL Draft played five NHL games with the Minnesota during the 1988-89 season and made a number of stops in the minors in both the AHL and International Hockey League.
Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon got a first-hand look at the impact Jerrard had on those throughout the game and that is something he won’t soon forget.
“The impact that he had on me, not just as a hockey player, but as a person, was indescribable, really,” said Dillon. “A 20-year-old kid coming up to play pro hockey in Texas, not really knowing much about the pro game or being on your own, away from your family, I really can’t say enough good things about him.
“Obviously, as a coach, his main role, but as a person, too, (the) connectivity with the players. I think everyone that had him would say nothing but good things. He was one of the most fit, the most active people… he was in better shape than 90 per cent of us on the team. I’m beyond sad for everybody, for his family, He’s probably affected positively so many people away from the rink and players that are now in the NHL.”
Jerrard’s ability to connect with people was one of the many things that stood out as the tributes began to pour in.
“Just so, so welcoming. For young guys, veteran players, he was so well-respected, one of those guys you could tell put the work in,” said Dillon. “He was so prepared for games, practices, after practices. He spent the time to work on whatever it was you wanted to as a player. One of the best people in hockey.”
Dillon and Jerrard stayed in touch long after they had moved on from the Stars’ system.
“The last couple of summers, we’ve touched base and he’s had me have some chats with younger defencemen, kind of moving them along, share some insight on what I can to help them develop,” said Dillon. “Again, that’s a credit to him and the lengths he’ll go to make his players better and give them the best opportunity to succeed.
“He never really mentioned he was sick or anything. It was about, ‘How are you doing, Dilly?’ ‘How are things going with your family?’ As opposed to him. It speaks to him and the character that he has and how much he cares about everybody else.”
Jets head coach Rick Bowness never worked on the same staff as Jerrard, but had some interactions with him over the years and was among those shaken up by the news.
“A wonderful guy. A good coach and a good person,” said Bowness. “As a coach, you want to leave more of an impression on your players than just coaching. You want to teach them to be good people and be good human beings and good fathers and good role models. Paul obviously had an effect on that.”
During his time in both the NHL and AHL, I was fortunate to engage in some conversations with Jerrard and they were always enjoyable.
He was such a positive person and his passion for hockey was undeniable.
Jerrard will be missed by many and if you’re unfamiliar with his story, take some time to read some of the tributes written about him during the course of the past week.
• Excellent to see the enthusiasm shown by the folks who attended the Stadium Series Game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, with a crowd of 56,961 enjoying the festivities at the home of the North Carolina State Wolfpack. The Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals 4-1 in what was their first outdoor game in 25 years as a franchise.
Martin Necas paced the offensive attack with two goals and an assist to continue his solid season. With more than a quarter of the season still to come, Necas has already established career highs for goals (22), assists (29) and points (51) and he leads the Hurricanes with 13 multipoint games this season. As someone who enjoys playing golf on occasion, it’s a two thumbs up rating to theHurricanes for their ode to old school golfers (complete with plaid knickers and hats the late Payne Stewart would be proud of) for their walk into the stadium. Brent Burns looked like he was ready for the opening round at The Open.
Stick taps go out to the Capitals for the varsity jackets look. Very sharp. There’s so much talk about players needing to show more personality to help grow the game and there have been some fun examples of it so far when it comes to outdoor games. Keep it coming. Bonus points for the golf-themed Storm Surge to wrap up the day.
• This is a hockey column and will continue to be but there will be moments when I take time to salute achievements from other sports. Peter King, of Football Morning in America and previously Monday Morning Quarterback fame, is someone I’ve enjoyed reading for a long time and he’s always done a great job of mixing in the personal side of things over the years.
While I meant to do this last week, it’s never too late to dedicate some space to legendary performances. To see LeBron James pass Kareem Abdul-Jabaar to become the NBA All-Time leader in points is certainly worthy of a mention here. It’s an outstanding feat and I feel privileged to have had a few opportunities over the years to see him live.
I didn’t get to watch Michael Jordan play, so I made sure to see James suit up for the Cleveland Cavaliers while covering the AHL for a decade. What James has accomplished speaks for itself. His combination of power and finesse — coupled with his dedication and will to win — makes James one of the all-time greats. If you’ve got an athlete or artist you’ve been wanting to see live, make it happen. You won’t regret it.
• If you were wondering how Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau was going to respond to the firestorm created by the tweet sent out by his agent Allan Walsh on Thursday night directed at coach Darryl Sutter, how does two assists in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the hottest team in hockey sound?
The adjustment for Huberdeau has not gone as smoothly as planned, but that was an excellent response for the skilled forward — who also handled Friday’s media availability well. At a time when the Flames are battling tooth and nail for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, Huberdeau needs to find a way to be one of his team’s best players.
Chipping in a pair of helpers — which included setting up Mikael Backlund’s GWG that snapped the Rangers seven-game winning streak — was an important step in that process. After racking up 30 goals and 115 points for the Florida Panthers last season, Huberdeau has 10 goals and 38 points in 53 games. But if he can get going during the stretch run and help the Flames get into the post-season, that’s what folks are going to remember most about his first year in Calgary.
• What an outstanding season Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron is having. The tremendous two-way centre reached the 20-goal mark for a 10th consecutive season, in a 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders.
• Bergeron became the fifth active player with 14 or more 20-goal campaigns in his career. The others are Alex Ovechkin (18) of the Capitals, Sidney Crosby (15) and Evgeni Malkin (14) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Patrick Kane (14) of the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s nearly decision time for Kane and with the clock ticking, teams I could see him accepting a trade to include the Dallas Stars, the Golden Knights and the Buffalo Sabres.
• Connor McDavid became the first player to eclipse the century mark this NHL season by chipping in a pair of assists against the New York Rangers on Friday night.
The Oilers’ captain continues to impress this season and it will be interesting to see the final totals when the regular season comes to an end. Who will be the second player to reach 100 points? Leon Draisaitl, Nikita Kucherov, Matthew Tkachuk, David Pastrnak or Erik Karlsson? Tell me who and why at email@example.com.