The Stanley Cup-winning coach who will lead the Kraken’s new American Hockey League affiliate had a firsthand look last season at the challenges of melding two groups of farmhands into one cohesive unit.
Onetime NHL coach of the year Dan Bylsma, announced Tuesday as the first bench boss of the incoming Coachella Valley Firebirds franchise, was an assistant last season when the Kraken and Florida Panthers undertook a one-year affiliate-sharing arrangement with the Charlotte Checkers. Bylsma said he hopes to employ some of the lessons learned from that into his new Coachella Valley stint, where the Kraken’s core of prospects coming over from the Checkers will be melded with newcomers on a dramatically expanded roster.
“The opportunity feels like it is one from the ground up,” Bylsma, 51, a native of Grand Haven, Michigan, said in a media conference call Tuesday. “The Kraken have obviously had an expansion draft and a year under their belt but didn’t have a development system or an American Hockey League team to develop their players, and we’re starting one from the ground up here in Coachella. And that’s an exciting thing.”
The Firebirds are awaiting the December completion of their 10,000-seat Acrisure Arena facility, and their training camp and early games will be played in Seattle. The games will be played at either Climate Pledge Arena, the Kraken Community Iceplex or local junior rinks.
Bylsma served as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2008-14 and won a Stanley Cup in 2009 before moving on to two seasons behind the Buffalo Sabres bench from 2015-17. He won the Jack Adams Award in 2011 with Pittsburgh as the NHL’s top coach and also coached the men’s U.S. Olympic team during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The sharing arrangement with the Panthers limited the Kraken to a roster of about 10 AHL players on the Checkers at any given time. That, coupled with the Checkers being based in North Carolina, made it difficult logistically for the Kraken to shuttle players to and from the NHL squad once injuries and COVID-19 began taking a toll.
“I think bringing two organizations together to develop players that are in that process was a bit of a challenge,” Bylsma said.
The biggest might have been fostering a Kraken team “culture” with the minor-leaguers, with the Panthers having their prospects on the Checkers they wanted to meld. Bylsma said he learned a lot from watching Checkers coach Geordie Kinnear manage the two groups into one unit. That will still need to happen next season with an expanded roster — meaning a slew of newcomers within the Kraken prospects group.
Unlike NHL rosters capped at 23 players, those in the AHL are unlimited and usually run between 23 to 25.
Returning Kraken AHL players on the Firebirds roster are expected to include Alexander True, Max McCormick, Luke Henman, Dennis Cholowski and Carsen Twarynski, and Cale Fleury and goalie Joey Daccord could get initial chances with the NHL club. Others filling out the AHL roster will include defenseman Ryker Evans — the team’s second-round draft pick last summer — as well as recently signed European free agents Peetro Sepala and Ville Petman and Tye Kartye from the Ontario Hockey League.
But the majority of the Firebirds’ roster will be comprised of newcomers from organizations other than the Kraken’s.
“A lot of us won’t know each other coming into the team in Coachella,” Bylsma said. “But the challenge is to get on the same page and to establish the culture the Seattle Kraken have already established in being a hardworking, smart, hockey team. They’ll have skating, work ethic and be doing it in a winning atmosphere in Coachella.”
Kraken general manager Ron Francis said on the same call that in made sense to stick with Bylsma as their AHL coach.
“When we looked at it from an organizational standpoint, it’s such a critical part of the process as we draft these young men and we ask them to go play in the American Hockey League,” Francis said. “We try to draft and develop them to get to the NHL. So having a guy with Dan’s sort of pedigree, he’s coached at all levels: the AHL, the NHL, the world championships. He’s won a Stanley Cup. He’s been a coach of the year in the NHL. We feel very fortunate we have somebody like Dan to lead that charge and help develop our young players.”
Francis said the team plans to stage a development camp in Seattle following next month’s entry draft in Montreal. The camp, featuring some prospects drafted next month, will take place July 10-14 at the Kraken Community Iceplex.
The Firebirds will open training camp in September alongside the Kraken at the same facility. Players sent down by the NHL team will remain in Seattle practicing with the AHL squad, and initial Firebirds games will take place in Seattle while construction on the Acrisure venue is completed by December.
The Firebirds are expected to transition to their practice facility in the Coachella Valley area by November.