In a milestone move for the brand-new 32nd franchise in the American Hockey League, the Coachella Valley Firebirds named Stanley Cup-winning Dan Bylsma head coach Tuesday. He joins Seattle’s AHL affiliate after a season as assistant coach with the Charlotte Checkers, which won the AHL’s 2021-22 regular-season Atlantic Division title with developing a split roster of pros from the Kraken and Florida Panthers.
“We’re excited to name Dan Bylsma the first head coach in Coachella Valley Firebirds history,” said Seattle Kraken General Manager Ron Francis. “The head coach of our AHL affiliate plays a critical role in developing future Kraken players.
“Dan worked with our prospects this past season in Charlotte and brings a wealth of NHL and AHL experience to our new AHL club. We look forward to Dan guiding our team.”
“It’s an exciting opportunity to go in on the ground floor for Coachella Valley alongside the Kraken to establish a culture and mindset with a winning backdrop,” Bylsma said early Tuesday before the official announcement. “We’re going to be an expansion team in the American Hockey League with the Seattle way of doing things and developing players.”
When Bylsma joined the Kraken’s player development staff before last season, a big reason was Seattle GM Ron Francis’ track record of drafting players and further developing them into consistent and high-performing NHL players while overseeing Carolina Hurricanes hockey operations (along with several colleagues now with the Kraken). Bylsma added he is highly impressed with the one-year progress of the Kraken inaugural 2021 draft class.
“The types of players Ron likes have good hockey sense, smart, great skaters,” Bylsma said. “Those are key attributes for the future success of the Kraken. I am really looking forward to developing our players … I think a huge part of development is ultimately winning together as a team and we will be looking to do that. .”
Bylsma is familiar to hockey fans, most notable for leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup after taking over as head coach mid-season to finish the regular season with an 18-3-4 record. The Stanley Cup Final was an all-time classic between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. Two seasons later, Bylsma won the Jack Adams NHL coach-of-the-year award.
After six years in Pittsburgh, Bylsma served as the Buffalo Sabres head coach for two seasons. More recently, he was an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings for three NHL seasons before joining the Kraken player development group by serving as assistant coach in Charlotte.
The Checkers split roster jelled in the second half of this season, finishing strong and winning the division before going three deep into the AHL playoffs.
Bylsma, a former NHL forward, has naturally worked with D-men signed with the Kraken this past season, including Kraken developing pros Cale Fleury, Gustav Olofsson, Connor Carrick and, later in the year, Dennis Cholowski when he was re-acquired off waivers after the NHL-tested defenseman was Seattle’s pick from Detroit’s roster in last summer’s expansion draft.
Bylsma also got an up-close look at veteran forward Max McCormick (who recently signed a two-year contract extension with Seattle) and frequent linemate and Kraken expansion pick from San Jose, Alexander True. He calls them both “players working hard to be good teammates” whether they were up with the Kraken during the inaugural season or with Charlotte. Plus, True was the Checkers’ leading scorer during the regular season while he and McCormick were tied for second on the team in postseason scoring.
In the AHL, the concept is to give young pros more ice time and the opportunity to correct mistakes with less fear of dropping out of the lineup. Teams still aim to win but there is a symbiotic commitment to “let players go out there and keep doing it.”
“Going back to my past experience as a player, we all think there is ample opportunity for everyone to play [during an NHL game],” Bylsma said. “It’s just not always the case. The younger player might not get the opportunity to fully develop. In the AHL, you get the opportunity to play and improve.
We all look at NHL rosters and see the players listed [up to 23 on active rosters],” said Bylsma. “But during the course of a season, the typical NHL rosters runs 30, 32, 34 players deep. Seattle fans are going to count a good number of players wearing a Coachella Valley jersey to start the season that they will be cheering for in NHL games later in the year.”
While all players want to make the NHL roster coming out of training camps, Bylsma and other knowledgeable player development coaches and executives espouse the value of getting the opportunity to play plentiful minutes (15 to 20 minutes) in the AHL rather than, say, eight to 10 minutes of average ice time during an NHL game.
“Virtually everybody-there are exceptions such as Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid-has played in the AHL,” Bylsma said.
In fact, some 90 percent of today’s NHL players have logged time in the AHL and more than 100 Hockey Hall- of- Famers “played and improved” in the top professional development league.