Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis still backs his head coach and his beleaguered starting goaltender despite the NHL expansion team's disappointing first season.
The Kraken are in last place in the Pacific Division with a 10-19-4 record (24 points), 12 points out of a playoff spot. Their .364 points percentage is second lowest in the Western Conference. While many preseason projections had Seattle contending for a playoff berth, thanks to favorable expansion draft rules and the presumed strength of their goaltending, the Kraken currently have a less than 1% chance of making the postseason.
"I think it's certainly been more challenging than we were hoping for when the season started," Francis told ESPN on Monday. "I thought we'd be a competitive team. You're always hoping that things go right for you, that you have a chance to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for us, it's gone the other way."
Francis said his team's goaltenders have "struggled" this season, with an NHL-worst .874 team save percentage. Philipp Grubauer, the former Colorado Avalanche goalie whom the Kraken signed to a six-year free-agent contract, is 7-13-4 with an .882 save percentage.
Francis said he's not concerned that Grubauer may not be the franchise goalie for the Kraken.
"If you look at his career, I think he struggled a little bit going from Washington to Colorado as well," he said. "Look, this was a guy who was a finalist for the Vezina [Trophy] last year. I'm not giving him a total free pass. I think if you talked to him, he would say there are things he needs to be better at and there are saves he needs to make. But I still think he's a goaltender that can be good for us moving forward, as we build around him and increase our team."
The Kraken have played better in front of their goaltenders since the start of the season, which is something Francis credits to his head coach, Dave Hakstol.
"I think he's been good. I mean, you come into it with the challenges early with COVID and with playing five road games in eight days on the road. You're trying to implement a system, you're trying to learn about other teams. ... There's a lot going on at the start of the season," Francis said. "But I think we're much better now than we were at the start of the year. I'm comfortable with the job Dave has done at this point, and I know he'll continue to do better as we move forward."
The bar was set high for the Kraken after the Vegas Golden Knights made the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. While Seattle had the same expansion draft rules as Vegas, Francis said he was unable to leverage teams for players and picks like the Golden Knights did.
"We're different than Vegas. It's been pretty clear. It was the first time those GMs had gone through those rules. Teams had a little over a year to prepare for it. This time, they had four years before they got to us," he said, adding that the Golden Knights also altered the landscape by not having to participate in the expansion draft.
"Vegas didn't have anybody on the outside affecting their draft. We had Vegas on the outside, able to affect our draft, which they ultimately did in making a few trades with some teams," said Francis.
The Kraken general manager said that their lack of success this season doesn't alter his long-term planning for the team.
"For us, the worst thing to do would have been to panic and change course and start giving up assets for pieces that may or may not turn things around this year," Francis said. "The tough part is biting the bullet, sticking to the plan, drafting and developing well and trying to improve your team in ways that you can."
He also isn't concerned that a losing first season will impact the Kraken's ability to build a fan base in a crowded Seattle sports market.
"Anytime you're not having a great year, you're worried about that. But our fans have been tremendous in the support they're showing. They understand we're an expansion team, and it takes time to build it the right way," he said.