The NHL's best and worst this week: Inside the Seattle Kraken's strength and conditioning program

The Kraken's training facility -- shown here on Nov. 10, 2020 -- will include three sheets of ice, along with off-ice components being developed by strength and conditioning coach Nate Brookreson. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Seattle was awarded an NHL expansion team in December 2018. The Kraken won't debut until October 2021 -- giving the NHL's 32nd team a nearly three-year ramp-up. Its hires have been calculated and gradual (in part to keep costs at bay).

Tod Leiweke joined as CEO early on and formed a business staff and analytics department. A general manager, Ron Francis, was named seven months in, and his first hires were pro scouts to begin working on the expansion draft. Seattle is still in no rush to hire a head coach -- which made it curious that a year before the team was scheduled to take the ice, the Kraken had already brought on head strength and conditioning coach Nate Brookreson.

The question for Brookreson: How do you build a modern NHL strength and conditioning program from scratch? It's obviously a significant undertaking, considering Brookreson was given a year of leeway.

First, some background on Brookreson. He played football at Central Washington State, and began his career working in college sports, overseeing everything from football, soccer, tennis, volleyball, swimming and diving, most recently at NC State. However, Brookreson had never worked in hockey. While it gives him a unique perspective -- and means he's not as beholden to the same way of doing things, just because it's the way they've always been done -- Brookreson knew he needed to educate himself on the landscape, as well as hockey players.

He has already connected with about half of the league's strength and conditioning coaches, who have been happy to share practices and practical tips. "We're going to have guys from every single organization, so there will be an expectation for how they used to do things," Brookreson said. "If we're 180 degrees different, that's probably not great."

Brookreson has also been reaching out to several trainers with whom players work in the offseason. For Brookreson, it's important to learn about their programs and understand why players are gravitating toward different philosophies.

"What I've learned is that these athletes really want to know the 'whys,'" Brookreson said. "They want to be involved. There's a cooperative process in training. They don't necessarily expect autonomy, but especially with them seeking out professional help in the offseason, they take agency."

Brookreson has been building a "strategic performance document" which is up to 200 pages ... and counting.

As for building out the Kraken weight room?

"The equipment itself is not all that different," Brookreson said. "If you walked into the Seahawks' facility and ours, you wouldn't see a ton of variance. The biggest thing is probably the Wattbikes."

The high-end Wattbikes have become ubiquitous in the NHL, as well as a key feature of the NHL combine. They can do Wingate and VO2 max testing, which measure players' anaerobic and aerobic capacities, and for their preprogramed training intervention, which Brookerson says is "specific to the energy system demand of hockey."

The Kraken's weight room will also be outfitted with other cardio machines, Hawkin Dynamics force plates, which Brookreson says are "widely accepted in the NHL," and different plyo box variants.

Where Brookreson thinks Seattle will have an edge is in its integration of data into the strength and conditioning program.

"A lot of organizations are doing heart rate, doing external load monitoring," Brookreson said. "A lot of people are collecting information, so it seems like they're gathering a lot of stuff, but maybe don't have great processes around it. How are we taking advantage of this information to be better than the people we're competing against? I think our ability to do that will be better than most teams, off the bat."

Right now, the team is figuring out how to create a dashboard for information it collects at checkpoints, such as rating players' perceived exertion after practice.

"We have so many good people on the staff, why would we not leverage the analytics staff to help us build this out?" Brookreson said. "We have a UX/UI designer who came from Microsoft; if you have an idea, he can build it. I want to create front-end systems so that it doesn't take up so much of our time. Because once we're going, I'd much rather spend my time working with one guy, and delving into what his needs are, rather than say, 'I have to go work on my computer for two hours because I need to pull all this data and push it to the coaches and management.'"

At the same time, Brookreson must manage a fine line.

"The biggest thing people have told me: 'Don't crowd these guys, don't make them feel like they're lab rats,'" Brookreson said. "So everything we're doing has to fit within the ecosystem of our day-to-day. It's not just, 'Hey, we're doing this test, I need you to do this force plate test, I need your RPEs [rated perceived exertions],' making these guys feel like they're constantly logging into their phone, or being monitored. We're trying to do the least number of touchpoints with the most amount of impact."

Brookreson has gotten significant help along the way from Gary Roberts, the longtime NHL player and now renowned fitness guru who Seattle brought on as a consultant. The two talk pretty much every day.

"Nutrition is an example of something Gary and I are taking on together, because it's right in his wheelhouse," Brookreson said. "He's big on locally sourced food, and how we'll work with the chefs on staff with snacks, supplements, all of that."

While it seems like Brookreson has a lot of time, it's going to be a mad dash after the expansion draft in July. By then, the Kraken will have hired a coach, so Brookreson can work collaboratively on refining the program.

"Then the first day guys come in the door, we're going to do physicals, then off-ice testing," Brookreson said. "We better be really secure in how we're going to go through that process, because it can't feel chunky, like we're not organized, the tech is not working properly. It can't be the guys come in and we're like, 'We're all going through this together, hopefully it turns out well!'"

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

Nicklas Backstrom notched two assists in the Capitals' 4-2 win over the Devils on Sunday, bringing the Capitals center two assists shy of 700 for his career. Backstrom will be one of three active players to hit the milestone (following Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton) and the 25th to reach it before 1,000 career games; Crosby also did in fewer than 1,000 games, and everyone else on the list who is eligible for the Hall of Fame is in.

Backstrom has long been viewed (and promoted) as one of the league's most underappreciated stars; a Hall of Fame-worthy player who often gets lost in Alex Ovechkin's shadow. For his part, Backstrom doesn't mind living outside the spotlight. The 33-year-old Swede is polite and soft spoken. He revealed to my friend Isabelle Khurshudyan in 2018 that he grew up with a slight stutter, which forces him to choose his words carefully.

Maybe the boldest thing Backstrom has done in his career was negotiating his own contract ahead of last season -- no agent, no lawyer, just him and the front office.

"It was always a part of the business I was interested in," Backstrom said. "And I wanted to see it myself. I felt like I had been in this organization a long time, and I thought I had a good enough relationship with the organization that I could try it. It was smooth; obviously I was really happy with how it turned out [a five-year, $46 million extension]."

Ovechkin is also planning to negotiate his next contract with the Caps; the captain's current deal expires this summer. When asked what advice he would have for other players looking to follow his lead, Backstrom stressed preparation and "sticking to your values." However, he admitted that he entered negotiations under unique circumstances.

"I honestly didn't use a lot of material, I just went in there and talked to the GM," Backstrom said. "And I think he came more prepared than I did. He showed me some numbers and stuff, so it was basically that. Then you gotta figure something out, you gotta meet somewhere, you know?"

After dealing with a nagging injury in the summer's return-to-play bubble, Backstrom has stormed off to his best start (20 points in his first 15 games) in nine years. Backstrom and his teammates are still adjusting to Peter Laviolette's new system after a shortened offseason.

"He wants us to play really good defensively to start, then his system is pretty aggressive," Backstrom said. "He wants us to attack. He wants us to have possession, but he also wants us to shoot a lot more pucks. If you aren't shooting the puck, you're not going to score. I think we're all starting to get an understanding of what he wants from us, and how he wants us to play."

For Backstrom, in his 14th season with the team, adjusting to a new system isn't anything new. The Caps have averaged a new head coach every other season during his tenure. And 56 different players have scored goals off his 698 assists.

"I've been here a long time, but even if it's been a lot of coaches and stuff like that, it feels like it's flying by really quick," Backstrom said. "It's almost like, when you talk about someone, they say he was your coach, and you remember, 'Oh yeah, you're right.' But at the same time, I think that just shows that the organization wants to find the right one and they care about winning. That's why you do that, I think."

Backstrom admits that there was a time he wasn't sure whether the Capitals would ever win a Stanley Cup, let alone their current status of competing seriously for No. 2.

"I don't know exactly, but it was probably six or seven years into my NHL career, we kept losing in the first round, we weren't going anywhere, we were stuck there," Backstrom said. "Instead of just restarting it and getting ready for the next season, you were almost questioning yourself. Is it me [that's] the problem? What's going on? But I think what we all learned was that you've got to build experience and make sure you get enough experience to know what it takes. We had a pretty experienced coach who took us all the way."

Three stars of the week

Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

The young American center is the first player in 15 years to score 18 goals in his first 18 games. (He had a whopping seven this week, as well as five assists, in four games). It's also probably worth mentioning Matthews has a really good all-around game; he ranks first among forwards at even strength in puck battle wins, and third in blocked shots, with 19.

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

Another week, another jaw-dropping highlight. With his seventh career five-point game on Saturday, it's worth mentioning he's on pace for 103 points in 56 games. Yeesh.

Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Florida Panthers

For the past few years, Aleksander Barkov was generally regarded as the most underrated player in the NHL. That distinction has now been inherited by his teammate. Huberdeau had three goals (including an OT winner) and four assists in four games this week.

We'd also say his confidence level is at an all-time high to attempt (and pull off) this maneuver:

What we liked this week

1. NHL players rarely use the pronoun "I," choosing to say "we" or "you" instead (a tick with which I've become somewhat obsessed). So while I loved the way Sidney Crosby's Penguins teammates honored the captain for his 1,000th career game on Saturday, I found the tributes to be a pretty funny, albeit unintentional, commentary on hockey culture. Honoring individual achievements through the collective. It's perfect.

2. If you're looking for a relatable moment from an NHL player, how's this from Alex Pietrangelo, the league's fifth-highest-paid blueliner, as he sees Nathan MacKinnon barreling down the ice. Defensemen everywhere are like yeah, been there.

3. Fits of the week. All of them. More evidence that hockey players would thrive creatively if the NHL lifted its game-day dress code.

4. Another great update from the King.

5. I'm really excited to tune in tonight to the TV adaptation of Fredrik Backman's novel, "Beartown," on HBO. It's one of my favorite hockey books, full stop. "Beartown" describes junior hockey culture in a small town better than anything I've seen (it takes place in Sweden, but could easily be in Canada, Finland, the U.S. or Russia). There's an assistant NHL coach I know who recommends that all of his players read the book.

What we didn't like this week

1. So the NHL's outdoor games at Lake Tahoe didn't go exactly as planned -- besides the eight-hour delay on Saturday, the league had to surrender prime broadcasting windows on NBC -- but I would hardly consider it a bust. The NHL experimented. It wanted to try something new and put on a signature event in this most unusual season, and probably learned a few lessons along the way (most notably, about sunshine, which Gary Bettman humorously said, "has always been our enemy"). As Greg Wyshynski wrote last week, the NHL will evaluate everything that happened this weekend, and if it views the Lake Tahoe experience favorably, it could rewrite the rules for the outdoor game strategy in the future.

But then we heard this from Bettman on Sunday: "We're in a unique year and unique season, and we wanted to have a special event. But I believe we belong in front of our fans in large numbers when we do these special events."

I get it. And this has nothing to do with sun glare (which also presents issues at baseball and football stadiums) and everything to do with revenue. Bettman needs to say things like this, especially for owners and sponsors, given the economic climate we're in, knowing the easiest way to make an event like this "work" is by generating revenue, selling thousands of tickets, expensive beer and merchandise.

I'm still hopeful we can get something as unique as Tahoe; something that celebrates the true spirit of outdoor hockey, that adds originality to the Winter Classic concept. Seriously, just look at this:

As NHL exec Steve Mayer told Wyshynski last week, "There's no commitment beyond this year, but if it's super successful, I think it would be absolutely considered and added to what we're doing with outdoor games. The Mall in Washington. Central Park. Mount Rushmore. Imagine all the games with those backdrops."

So maybe it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. Maybe it can be both. And perhaps one day the NHL can figure out a creative way to make the juice worth the squeeze without having to cram a bunch of fans in. The NHL is also welcome to fall back on this idea:

2. It's gut-check time for the Buffalo Sabres. They're dead last in the East and the schedule is just brutal for them. They have five games this week and are in the middle of a stretch with 22 games in 36 days. That includes five back-to-backs and no breaks of two or more days.

This was supposed to be a season in which Jack Eichel and Ralph Krueger helped this team turn the corner (thanks to help from their new friend, Taylor Hall, and better center depth). Instead, it's another season in which Jeff Skinner's struggles (zero goals in 14 games) are an unavoidable topic. It appears Skinner is getting the healthy scratch treatment Monday night against the Islanders.

While I've heard some scuttlebutt that Hall and the Sabres have mutual interest in a new contract, it seems unlikelier by the day that Skinner will be on the Sabres' roster in 2026-27, as a 34-year-old making $9 million per season. And if we get to that point, I can't wait to find out how it happened.

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Monday: Dallas Stars at Florida Panthers 7 p.m.

I've been hesitant to believe in the Panthers. Seven of their first 11 wins were by one goal (including four that went to overtime or the shootout). Goaltender Chris Driedger is bound to regress ... right? So far, Driedger still looks great, and so does Florida. This series is even more important for Dallas, which is on a five-game losing streak and needs to make up ground in the Central.

Thursday: Carolina Hurricanes at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

This will be the last of a four-game set between these two that started Saturday. The Lightning went scoreless in two games against Carolina this season (uncharacteristic for the defending champs) but that's also a testament to how strong the Canes have been. This will be a great series between heavyweights who are second and third in the league in goal differential. Note that Monday's and Wednesday's matchups between these two are also streaming on ESPN+.

Saturday: Toronto Maple Leafs at Edmonton Oilers, 7 p.m.

We've finally transitioned to the point where Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin isn't the marquee matchup of NHL stars; it's now Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid. Matthews leads the NHL in goals by a decent margin, while McDavid leads in points by a decent margin. They're the top two MVP candidates right now, and with a clash on Canada's favourite hockey night, we're due for a show.

Social post of the week

Roberto Luongo now oversees the Panthers' goaltending excellence department but maintains his post atop the NHL Twitter excellence department as well. Impressive mastery of both roles.