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2023 NHL playoff preview: Avalanche vs. Kraken

By Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman and Sean Gentille

On one hand, it’d be easy to feel bad for the Seattle Kraken. Their reward for making a monumental leap in Year 2 of the franchise is a first-round matchup against the defending champs.

On the other, even if it’s paused here, the progress has been undeniable, and the future is bright. Just enjoy that, y’know? The Golden Knights got a little too greedy a little too early, and it feels like they’re still paying the price. That’s an expansion lesson worth learning.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche, banged up or not, are about to start their title defense, with the same bones as last year’s juggernaut. They’re being graded on a different scale. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Is there any chance Seattle comes out of this with something more than a “happy to be here” trophy?

The Odds

This is it, the most lopsided series of the opening round. The Avalanche are deserved heavy favorites as one of the league’s best teams.

If you’ve time-traveled from October that makes perfect sense — it’s the defending Stanley Cup champions vs. a second-year expansion team. But in the seven months since that might feel a bit unfair to a Kraken team that won 46 games. (If you’re still with us Mr. Time Traveller, yes, the Kraken won 46 games this year. No, we’re not lying to you).

The Kraken were a huge surprise this season and that’s part of the reason the model doesn’t give them much of a chance. Not against arguably the class of the West. The model doesn’t have much faith in their performance being repeatable, putting much more stock in Colorado’s track record as an elite team.

Looking at the stats from the two teams this year suggests the two clubs aren’t as far off as these odds suggest. But the Avalanche have dealt with injuries all season that obfuscate how good they are when healthy. They’re not fully healthy, not without captain Gabriel Landeskog who didn’t play a single game this year, but they’ll be as close as they have been all season for Game 1. And that spells trouble for Seattle. This series shouldn’t be close.

The Numbers

To the surprise of no one, the Avalanche rate better offensively than their Round 1 opponent. At five-on-five this season, Colorado created more shots and quality chances than the Kraken. Their offensive generation was also a bit more balanced, while the Kraken leaned in more with their rush-based play. Seattle, and their depth scorers, put up goals at a higher clip — 3.16 per 60, which led the league compared to Colorado’s 2.67 which only ranked 12th.

The Avalanche only essentially matched expectations with their goal scoring, which is odd for a team with their finishing talent. That trended in the right direction in the second half and is something to watch. The Kraken, on the other hand, trended in the opposite direction in the second half; they didn’t have as many goals to show for what they created. That’s what tends to happen when the results don’t match the underlying play. If they were going into the playoffs with a bit more reinforcement, maybe in the form of Andre Burakovsky, there’d be a bit more hope that they should kick it up a level.

One of the weakest areas for Seattle is the power play, which was below average in shot quality and goal scoring. Colorado, to compare, was in the top-half in both metrics. When that top unit is healthy, it’s tough to slow down given how much talent is loaded on it; that’s why they finished sixth with 9.18 goals per 60.

On the other end of the ice, the two teams are pretty close in what they give up while shorthanded. The difference is between expectations and reality because the Kraken conceded a higher rate of goals against which falls on goaltending.

That’s similar at five-on-five, too. Seattle allows fewer shots against — the third-lowest rate in the league, to be exact. And these two teams are neck-and-neck in expected goals, both ranking in the top 10. The Kraken still have strengths but shaky goaltending to back it up. It’s not as pronounced as last year, but it’s still not an area of certainty, either.

The Big Question

Can Seattle’s forward depth overpower Colorado’s stars?

The first column on the Kraken’s stat sheet is proof enough that their method for team-building has, to date, gone according to plan. Thirteen players finished the regular season with 13 goals. Six had at least 20. At the top were Jared McCann (40), a third-line center with Pittsburgh who, at times, scored like a first-line winger; and Matty Beniers (24), the organization’s first draft pick and — not coincidentally — first attempt at adding truly elite talent to the fold.

Other than that? Mainly just a bunch of solid hockey players. It couldn’t have worked out better. After showing signs of this sort of thing in their inaugural season while getting knee-capped by their goaltenders, the Kraken went out and earned themselves a playoff spot. Beniers had himself an outstanding rookie season. Shane Wright, still, was found money at the No. 4 pick. There will be other opportunities to move solid talent on to the top shelf. At the moment, though, the Kraken seem like they’re trying to offer four nickels for a quarter.

Against the Avs, Seattle’s best hope might be for the bottom six to go buck wild. Eeli Tolvanen, picked off waivers from the Predators, has the third-highest goals/60 on the team (1.34) and a legitimately dangerous shot. The Predators failed for years to turn it into a source of production. Then, Seattle gets a hold of him, throws him on a line with Oliver Bjorkstrand and Yanni Gourde and, wham, 16 goals in 48 games.

As a whole, that line has some legitimate pop. If they’re matching up against Lars Eller, Denis Malgin and Alex Newhook, it’s well within the realm of possibility they’ll win the scoring battle. Playing Daniel Sprong on the fourth line, where his defensive issues can be mitigated by his teammates and his competition alike, is a nice trick, too. Getting Sprong out there against Colorado’s fourth line and third pairing could certainly lead to something. Upsets are built on secondary scorers coming up big a handful of times over the course of a series.

The issue for Seattle, though, is that the Avs have some decent depth players, too — Malgin in particular has been an efficient source of goals on the bottom six. Plus, there’s a whole cluster of talent at the top of Colorado’s lineup that figures to make Seattle’s marginal gains in the rest of the matchup a lot less relevant. This isn’t meant as a knock on what the Kraken have done; on the contrary, their brand of egalitarian play is a treat to watch. All things considered, though, it’s better to have two 100-point scorers than none.

The X-Factor

Do the Avalanche have enough firepower without Gabriel Landeskog?

If you’re in a rush: Yeah.

If you want a little more: Yeah, of course they do. For now. Even with Landeskog officially out of the lineup, the talent Colorado boasts along its first line is still stupid-good. That group alone — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Evan Rodrigues — can go goal-for-goal with any unit in the NHL, let alone the Beniers line. Skill like that can beat anybody at any time. Full stop.

Mix in the fact that McCann, great as his season was, scored 27 of his 40 goals against non-playoff teams and that Beniers is still only 20, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Seattle losing the top-line battle decisively enough to render the rest of the game irrelevant. Is that likely? No — but it’s still a more realistic outcome than the Avs being well and truly outgunned. If Cale Makar weren’t on track to play in Game 1, it’d probably be a longer discussion. Unfortunately for Seattle, that isn’t the case. Anything is possible, but not everything is realistic. Colorado finished with 109 points in 82 games and had Landeskog on the bench for zero of them. They know what they’re doing here.

The better question might be what Colorado would do in Round 2, when they’d be facing a team — Minnesota or Dallas — with stars at the top to rival their own. We’re not there yet, though.

The Rosters

Offensive and Defensive Rating explainer

Of almost any possible matchup in these playoffs there is none that has a wider discrepancy in the debate between star-power and depth. The Avalanche are a machine thanks to their elite core. 

That’s what makes this a massive mismatch, a problem that the Kraken will have an extremely difficult time solving for. There is simply no answer anywhere in the lineup for what the Avalanche stars can bring to the table. MacKinnon is a 100-point scorer and a top five forward on the planet. Rantanen is a 50-goal scorer and a top five winger. Makar is a generational defenseman, the best in the league who is a top five defenseman at both ends of the ice. Toews is a defensive stud who ranks in the league’s top 10 among all defensemen. How do you stop that?

Up front Colorado’s top line itself is a huge advantage. Rodrigues has turned into a serviceable plug-in player and he’s worked well this year being the defensive conscience while MacKinnon and Rantanen go off. The trio played 231 minutes together this year earning 59 percent of the expected goals while scoring 64 percent of the actual goals.

Shutting down MacKinnon and co. entirely doesn’t seem feasible, but slowing them down will be key for the Kraken. That job will come down to either Alex Wennberg’s line or Yanni Gourde’s line with the latter having some expertise in being a postseason shutdown center extraordinaire. 

That should free up Beniers, McCann and Jordan Eberle — Seattle’s best offensive players. The issue there is that the rest of Colorado’s forward group is loaded with defensively strong players — especially Colorado’s second line. J.T. Compher had an incredible breakout season for the Avalanche, enough to make their preseason need to replace Nazem Kadri a moot point. Defensively he played well enough to enter the fringes of the Selke conversation and he’s flanked by two analytics darlings who are excellent at pushing play up the ice. 

Seattle does have some nice players lower down the lineup that can chip in efficient depth scoring to balance the scales a bit, but the Avs also have the defensive ability to counter that. Newcomer Lars Eller struggled offensively this season, but he’s still got some defensive juice. 

The Kraken are deep, but overall they just don’t seem deep enough to go toe-to-toe with the defending champs. The lack of Burakovsky is also a big factor — he adds two percentage points to the odds and would go a long way toward making this team look a bit more formidable. Not deep enough where winning is all that likely, but enough to see at least some path forward. Right now it looks bleak.

On the back-end, the difference between the two teams is just as stark. Again, it starts at the top where Makar and Toews form the league’s best defensive pair. In 753 minutes together this year, they earned 59 percent of the expected goals and 62 percent of the goals thanks to both players’ elite puck-moving abilities. 

On the other side of the aisle, Vince Dunn offers some star-power of his own after a terrific breakout year. He was one of the big reasons Seattle’s offense popped so much — his on-ice goals-per-60 rates were off the charts good — and he had terrific chemistry with defensive stalwart Adam Larsson. That duo was a bright spot of Seattle’s season, but they just don’t compare to Colorado’s top duo. 

That would be true for any team and the goal here for Seattle will be to weather the star-powered storm and hope that the team’s depth advantages can prevail. That applies at forward and it applies all the same on defense where the Avalanche are a top-heavy group. Especially with how many offensive weapons the Kraken have at the bottom of the lineup. Colorado’s bottom four is talented, but their results at five-on-five this year underwhelmed — enough to not look too far off from the projections of Seattle’s own unremarkable bottom four. Bowen Byram and Samuel Girard are strong puck-movers and have the most potential to offer more than expected here, but we’ll have to see it to actually call it a discernible advantage in Colorado’s favor.

The final nail in the coffin is the goaltending matchup. Philipp Grubauer hasn’t been the same since leaving the Avalanche and is the only below-average goalie in the playoffs. He’s been better this year saving five goals above expected — right in line with where he was in 2021 with Colorado — but that’s not quite enough to wash away the stink of last season. He allowed 31.5 goals above expected then and the ever-present threat of that Grubauer showing up makes him a difficult goalie to bet on. Martin Jones actually started more games this season, but he would be an even more frightening option. This was his third straight season allowing over 10 goals above expected.

Neither option is promising for the Kraken and that makes goaltending another Avalanche advantage. Alexandar Georgiev perfectly seized the opportunity to become a full-fledged starter for Colorado this season saving 17 goals above expected with a .917 save percentage. The Avalanche are great at making things easy on their goaltending, but Georgiev was still strong in his own right.

Even if he isn’t, Colorado has enough advantages throughout the lineup over Seattle that it might not matter either way. 

The Key Matchup

Nathan MacKinnon vs. Matty Beniers

Even if a team wants to approach team-building differently and have the balanced approach that the Kraken have created this year, it helps to be headlined by some star power. That’s what Beniers is to the team. He’s a budding star who is a favorite for the Calder Trophy, and rightfully so. The forward made some noise when he joined the team late last year, and followed it up with an impressive rookie season.

But as the team’s leading bit of star power, he’s going to be matched up with the forward at the top of the Avalanche. That’s MacKinnon, the superstar who scored a hat trick in the final regular season game to get Colorado in this matchup. Few teams can stack up their best player to MacKinnon, he’s legitimately one of the best players in the world. There’s the skill, speed, and outright ability to take over games and will his team forward. If there were any questions about that, he answered them last postseason with a game-changing performance that ended with a Stanley Cup ring. He followed it up this regular season with 4.2 points per 60, for the fifth best scoring rate in the league.

The dream for the Kraken is that Beniers can eventually blossom into a player of MacKinnon’s caliber. That’s what any team should want for their young stars. But right now, there’s a huge disparity at the top of the lineup in this head-to-head matchup, and it could become draining for the Kraken.

The Bottom Line

If the Kraken find a way to pull this off, it’d be one of the best stories of the past few seasons. The last expansion team, of course, had an early Cinderella run that you probably remember. Fans in Seattle getting their own, even if it’s in Year 2, would be cool.

It’d also be legitimately shocking. The Avs, in most important ways, are still the Avs, but their best move would be to make relatively quick work here and hope Minnesota vs. Dallas lasts as long as possible.


How these projections work

How these projections performed last season

Understanding projection uncertainty 


Evolving Hockey

Natural Stat Trick

Hockey Reference


All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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