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Blackhawks’ first matchup vs. expansion Kraken arrives at interesting time

The Hawks’ much-anticipated western road trip begins Wednesday in Seattle, where the NHL’s newest franchise is off to a strange 4-10-1 start.

The Kraken have struggled in their first month.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

SEATTLE — During Derek King’s time as a player, he knew — everyone knew — every NHL expansion team would have a rough start.

In 1991-92, the Sharks went 17-58-5 in their inaugural season. In 1992-93, the Senators went 10-70-4 and the Lightning went 23-54-7. In 1993-94, the Ducks went 33-46-5, while the Panthers, at 33-34-17, fell just short of a nearly unprecedented first-season winning record. The trend continued through 2000-01.

The Golden Knights’ 2017-18 run to the Stanley Cup Final, though, changed the perception drastically. The Blackhawks learned about Vegas’ immediate dominance the hard way, catching them just eight games in and losing 4-2.

As the Hawks prepare for their first meeting Wednesday against the Kraken — the NHL’s 32nd franchise — their interim coach isn’t worried about his team getting caught off guard again.

“What I’ve seen over the years the expansion teams [now] are pretty good,” King said Tuesday. “Back in the day when the expansion teams came in, they struggled. But these teams are pretty good.

“And we’re in no position to look at any team and . . . think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a [two]-point night because they’re an expansion team.’ Every game is a hard game for us. We need to keep building on what we’ve started, but it’s not going to be easy.”

The Hawks are catching the Kraken at an interesting time.

On the surface, they haven’t replicated the Knights’ out-of-the-gate success whatsoever. They’re 4-10-1, riding a four-game losing streak and tied for 30th in the league in points.

But they have played better than their record indicates. General manager Ron Francis built an extremely defense-oriented roster during the expansion draft, and under the surface, they’ve delivered in that regard.

At even strength, they’ve allowed the fewest scoring chances per minute in the league (22.4), and they rank sixth in overall scoring chance ratio (53.7%). Ageless wonder Mark Giordano headlines a deep cast of defensemen, but even forwards like Alex Wennberg, Yanni Gourde and Calle Jarnkrok have aided the defensive stoutness.

The Kraken’s undoing traces partially to their special teams — their power play ranks 31st and their penalty kill 20th — and largely to their goaltending.

Starter Philipp Grubauer, whose six-year, $35.4 million contract made him one of the biggest free-agent signings ever by an expansion franchise, boasts an awful .880 save percentage through 12 starts. Backups Chris Driedger and Joey Daccord tout .833 and .855 save percentages, respectively, in two games each.

Those flaws give the Hawks a realistic path to continue their upward momentum, if not their winning streak, on this western trip. The equally reeling Canucks are up third, following a scary matchup against the Oilers.

Without a single road victory yet this season, though, the Hawks can’t afford to outwardly think like that.

“If anything, going into that Arizona game [last Friday], you naturally see a team that’s got a worse record than you and you sometimes want to let your guard down,” Connor Murphy said. “We fell into that [trap] a little bit in that game.

“But coming into this road trip, we’re playing all good teams. Seattle’s record is not amazing, but they look like a really hard-working team. And [they] still have a really good lineup and play hard and fast in their own building.”

From an off-ice standpoint, the Hawks have been especially looking forward to this trip for a while.

Experiencing brand-new Climate Pledge Arena and the newest city on the NHL’s travel circuit is legitimately exciting. And the time the trip will afford to eat and hang out will feel luxurious considering last season’s restrictions. After Wednesday’s historic matchup, the Hawks will enjoy an off-day Thursday in Seattle, for example, before flying into Canada.

“[We’ll] go on some dinners, get to know some new guys,” Alex DeBrincat said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to really bond as a team and right the ship.”