On a day the Kraken’s coming American Hockey League affiliate near Palm Springs, California, unveiled its jerseys, the team official heading up minor-league operations said Year 2 will be vastly different from this opening campaign.
Troy Bodie, the Kraken’s director of hockey and business operations for the coming Coachella Valley Firebirds franchise, hopes the team’s new AHL location in a soon-to-open, $300 million arena — on vacant land just outside Palm Desert adjacent to Palm Springs — vastly improves the way the team can oversee the development and movement of minor-league players. The Kraken currently share an affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the Florida Panthers.
The Firebirds won’t move into their new arena until mid-December, forcing them to play next season’s first couple of months on the road. The 275,000-square-foot arena with 10,000 seats, which has a name unveiling scheduled for Wednesday, didn’t break ground until May due to a site move, COVID-19 shipping delays and political hurdles.
“Having a place to call our own and having complete control over it, with our coaching staff and development staff in there every day is just a massive, massive improvement in our situation,” Bodie said.
The Firebirds’ new arena is being built by the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group headed by Tim Leiweke and partner Irving Azoff. Both were in Palm Springs for Monday’s reveal of the red and white jerseys, as was Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke. The Firebirds on Monday also donated $10,000 to the local Desert Blaze youth hockey program, which the AHL squad is expected to partner with and rebrand in a “Junior Firebirds” type of arrangement — though no name change has been announced — once the minor-league affiliate starts up next season.
Bodie said the team’s current one-year dual setup with the Panthers was the best possible under the circumstances. The Panthers supplied coach Geordie Kinnear, but the Kraken have assistant Dan Bylsma — who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship — on staff there.
“We’re very happy with how things are going, but ultimately it’s a team controlled by Florida and we’re housing our players there in the meantime,” Bodie said. “But having complete control over it, it’s going to be a big, big improvement.”
As will the logistics, with the desert location a couple of hours outside Los Angeles offering up to 17 daily Alaska Airlines flights to Seattle as opposed to the cross-continent setup from North Carolina. Last week the Kraken had to call up lower-level ECHL backup goalie Antoine Bibeau because snow and ice in Charlotte delayed numerous flights and prevented AHL netminder Joey Daccord from getting to Seattle right away.
The Kraken have had to use their AHL affiliate far more than anticipated after injuries to top players Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz and a string of COVID outbreaks that caused the NHL to reintroduce six-man taxi squads, on which replacement players can be kept on standby.
Bodie said the Firebirds could have a roster of up to 25 or 26 players, more than double the number of Kraken minor-leaguers who have seen time with the Charlotte franchise. One of those, defenseman Cale Fleury, was added to the Kraken’s taxi squad Monday, increasing the likelihood he and his brother, Haydn, could appear together in an NHL game at some point soon.
Cale Fleury has five goals and 12 assists in 36 games with Charlotte, ranking third among the team’s defensemen. To clear room, goalie Bibeau was assigned to Charlotte, and Daccord remains with the Kraken during Chris Driedger’s COVID-19 protocol absence.
Among the Kraken’s AHL surprises has been forward Max McCormick, who has eight goals and seven assists in 18 games and earned himself spot duty assignments to the NHL squad. At age 29, the local Charlotte fan favorite had been signed late more to fill out the minor-league roster than anything else.
“We wanted some veteran leadership, and he had an offseason surgery, so we didn’t know what we were going to get from him,” Bodie said. “And he’s been a very good addition. Obviously, he’s played some (Kraken) games up there for us, and we don’t just give those out. So he’s earned them quite a bit.”
Kole Lind leads all Kraken minor-leaguers with 11 goals and 22 overall points in 32 games, though Alexander True has 20 points in 24 games — having spent more time with the NHL club and its taxi squad.
Luke Henman, the Kraken’s first player signing, has two goals and five assists in 19 games his first pro season. He’s day to day because of a minor injury.
Next season the Kraken should have some of their top amateur draft picks ready to graduate to the professional ranks. Though center and top draft pick Matty Beniers from the University of Michigan is expected to join the big club, defenseman Ryker Evans, a second-round pick, and forward Ryan Winterton, a third-rounder, could be headed to the Firebirds.
“Seeing this built from the ground up has been really, really cool,” Bodie said. “Dealing with the young players that will soon come up and join our club in Palm Desert has been really rewarding that way. Helping them to develop and grow.”