Kraken fans cheer their team during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Just like every fan of the Seattle Kraken, Tod Leiweke on Tuesday, May 16, was reliving the spectacular, decisive goal by 20-year-old Wyatt Johnston the night before and pondering what could have been.

If that “elite, world-class play,” in the words of Dallas coach Pete DeBoer, didn’t go in, and the game goes into overtime, maybe Seattle is preparing for the Western Conference final instead of eulogizing its magical season.

“That’s how close it was,” Leiweke said.

But unlike the fans, Leiweke got a firsthand view of the genuine heartache in the Kraken dressing room in the wake of their agonizing 2-1 defeat in Game 7 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And that manifestation of their commitment was as inspiring to the Kraken’s CEO as the four weeks of inspired play that led up to that moment.

“It’s everything that fans would want to think,” Leiweke said Tuesday, shortly after the Kraken team flight landed in Seattle. “And it’s a beautiful thing, because they’re not one way in front of the fans.

“In fact, they’re even more emotional, more committed and more bound by these principles that we all would like to believe that athletes have at that level, and it’s true. I love these guys. I think they’re fantastic. And they’re easy to admire. The more this town gets to know us, the more they’re going to like us.”

That latter statement is undeniable.

Four weeks and fourteen games worth of high-stakes, higher-intensity playoff hockey — of which Seattle won seven and lost seven, but won untold hearts — made the Kraken the keen focus of sporting passion in these parts.

As coach Dave Hakstol said Monday in the wake of the defeat, “This group changed the landscape of hockey in Seattle.”

The blossoming of the community’s relationship with the team and sport over the past double-fortnight has been highly rewarding to the organization, and one they believe they can build on.

“Some people said, ‘Well, it’s playoff hockey,’ but I think for many people, they hadn’t really sat down and watched a full game,” Leiweke observed. “And when they did, they were able to see that the NHL is a just a fantastic game these days. It’s played with such speed — speed and grace and beauty and physicality. And it’s really compelling. So, I think we definitely made some new fans along the way.”

Now, of course, comes the hard part: Keeping them.

The exhilaration of a first-time playoff run is indescribable, particularly for a second-year franchise, but it can be ephemeral.

And this may be the last time the Kraken are unburdened by expectations. It’s hard to imagine them using the “no one believed in us” underdog ploy again next year, and least not without a rolled-eyes response.

Now people do believe in the Kraken, and they will expect more.

The Kraken’s run past the defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche and nearly past the formidable Stars was a lark — house money, to repeat the oft-used phrase.

But if the team regresses, that glow will dim, a reality that Leiweke recognizes.

He said that general manager Ron Francis told him on the plane home that he might — might — be able to squeeze in a long weekend before the draft on June 28 (in which the Kraken have three picks in the first two rounds).

But probably not.

“It’s an important summer,” Leiweke said. “We’re still building. It’s an important summer for Ron. They don’t rest. His first real break will come likely the first week or two of August. And they’re scheduled literally every day from now until that time comes. It’s a lot of work because we’re not done building yet. It was really a fantastic year. And I think we showed our potential, but there’s a lot of work in front of the organization.”

Leiweke points to the success of their Coachella Valley farm team as well as that of various prospects in the minor leagues as key building blocks.

You could also point to the culture Hakstol and Francis have built at the NHL level, one that DeBoer lauded postgame on Monday after narrowly escaping to a date with Las Vegas.

“They’re an opportunistic team,” DeBoer said. “You have to give them credit. I should have led with that. I was really impressed with the job Dave Hakstol and his staff did, but also how hard that team played and how ‘as a team’ they played. They were relentless, right up to the buzzer tonight. Hat’s off to them. It was a real impressive season and effort by that group. And they made us earn it.”

In the next breath, DeBoer pointed out, accurately, that the Stars took over big portions of the majority of games in the series.

That it still went down to the wire is a testament to Seattle’s grit, but also a message that they need to augment their roster.

The Kraken’s balanced scoring attack is a boon, but they could also use a bona fide star who can be counted upon to find the net in a game like Monday’s.

Mostly, though, it’s a time to savor the sheer fun of the Kraken’s playoff run. It’s even sweeter for Leiweke, who faced the daunting challenge of launching a franchise in the midst of a pandemic.

That made it difficult to instill their culture in what turned out to be a highly disappointing inaugural season.

“We had our first real crack, and it was this season,” he said. “I think our guys rose to the occasion. Ron Francis had a plan this whole time. And he just stuck to his plan and didn’t waver. And I think the players are proud to pull this sweater on, proud to represent this community. We had a great season, but our best days are in front of us, for sure.”

Making that statement a reality is the offseason mission of the Kraken. The bitter disappointment emanating through the organization should provide the undercurrent of motivation to do so.

Copyright 2023 Tribune Content Agency.

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