Generating Offense in a Post-Fourth Line Era
Free agency giveth and free agency taketh away. Stripped of depth, core skaters will be called upon for the bulk of the offense this season.
Stats via MoneyPuck, Hockey Reference, and HockeyViz.
Depth was the Seattle Kraken’s recipe for success last season. By prioritizing versatility and persistence in the offensive performance of their skaters, the team weaponized all four lines to wear down opponents and ensure sustainability of scoring. With legitimate offensive threats constantly taking the ice, Seattle’s attack was a difficult one to thwart.
Integral to that effort was the fourth line, whose unorthodox scoring touch gave Seattle an automatic leg up over a league traditionally casting aside the offensive potential of the bottom-six. They sourced scoring where there usually isn’t any. By the end of the season, 13 Kraken skaters had scored at least 10 goals, making them the most productive five-on-five roster in the NHL.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. Free agency did a number on the fourth line, and one of the most compelling storylines surrounding the Kraken concerns its aftermath following the loss of Daniel Sprong, Morgan Geekie, and Ryan Donato over the offseason. What’s the plan to replenish their scoring?
Quantifying the Loss
Last season was an immensely productive outing for the fourth line. Both Sprong (21-25-46) and Geekie (9-19-28) recorded career-highs in goals, assists, and points, while Donato (14-13-27) nearly matched those he’d set in the inaugural season. On paper, that’s 44 goals and 101 points out the door.
For these three, offensive success could be attributed chiefly to an aggressive net-front presence, something Seattle has historically and consistently failed to embody as a team.
Losing Sprong stands as the biggest offensive blow. As one of Seattle’s most efficient scorers, he accumulated 46 points in 66 games despite playing roughly 11 minutes a night. Sprong maximized his ice time, scoring at one of the highest rates in the entire league, generating 3.66 points per 60 minutes and 1.67 goals per game. His contributions rivaled that of several core skaters, including Oliver Bjorkstrand (20g, 45p), Jaden Schwartz (21g, 40p), and Alex Wennberg (13g, 38p).
Including fellow fourth-liner Brandon Tanev’s contributions, together they scored 20.8% of Seattle’s 289 goals. By themselves, Sprong, Geekie, and Donato made up 15.2% of that total, equaling the production of the entire defensive corps.
Sprong’s impact could also be felt in spades on the power play— his six power play goals accounted for 12.5% of the 48 scored thanks to his hammer of a shot from the wing.
External Factors at Play
Fortunately for Seattle, Sprong, Geekie, and Donato all benefited from lucky finishing last season, as did the entirety of the roster. Even if they had re-signed it’s unlikely they would’ve met the scoring standards they’d set for themselves anyways given their relatively low shooting talent absent of any gilding.
Unfortunately, as addressed in an article from the offseason, benefiting from luck means that Seattle’s set to regress offensively. On top of losing scoring from Sprong, Geekie, and Donato, crucial offensive contributors will also experience dips in production. Among those who could be affected, determined by outlier shooting percentages recorded last season, are Jared McCann, Eeli Tolvanen, and Vince Dunn.
Without the boost in finishing they previously enjoyed, whatever Seattle generates in shot quality is all that will be left to sustain scoring. Which isn’t much. The Kraken controlled just 51.88% of the total shot quality last season, and now possess only 50.22% through two games. It’s been nearly impossible to convert shot quality into concrete production— Seattle’s owned a meager 25% of the total goals scored this season.
Status of Reinforcements
All in all, Seattle’s lost a sizable chunk of their production, both at five-on-five and on the man-advantage. However the additions of Kailer Yamamoto and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare— who have since molded into fourth line regulars— seem designated to replenish scoring. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
Yamamoto’s scoring potential hinges on his health. Injuries have wrought inconsistency on his production— he’s only played a ~full season once (81 games in 2021-22) which also happens to be his highest-scoring season ever (20-21-41). He’s only cleared 20 goals once, never scoring more than 11 in one season otherwise.
Bellemare, on the other hand, isn’t known for his scoring. The 38-year-old has averaged 14.5 points over the past nine seasons and has never recorded at least 10 goals at once.
Although their net-front presences are encouraging, betting on either skater to have a standout season would be unwise. Career scoring histories can only provide a range of potential scoring, of which is low for both Yamamoto and Bellemare.
Don’t look to fellow free agency signing Brian Dumoulin for scoring help, either— playing amidst Seattle’s offensive-minded defensive corps could be beneficial, but the stay-at-home defenseman doesn’t bring much individual scoring talent to the table.
Scoring to Stay True to its Roots
For now, it looks like Seattle’s production will rely on two sources to uphold offense: core forwards and the newly healthy. Essentially, the top-six.
Andre Burakovsky was the team’s leading scorer at the time of his injury last season and has since made a full recovery. Bjorkstrand underwent surgery prior to his debut with Seattle, which Kraken general manager Ron Francis interpreted as part of his “slow start” to last season. Having both fresh going forward will be crucial.
Keep an eye on Schwartz, Wennberg, and Yanni Gourde, who are all due for boosts in scoring after particularly unlucky 2022-23 campaigns. Consistency can continue to be expected from Jordan Eberle, who has scored at least 20 goals and 40 points in eight of his last 13 seasons. Matty Beniers, equipped with his first full season in the league and fostering chemistry with his linemates, should be an asset once again.
But the bottom line? Seattle won’t be reaching the same offensive heights they did last season. Generating enough to keep their postseason aspirations alive will depend on the success of the core.
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