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Before new Kraken head coach Dan Bylsma and his wife, Mary Beth, boarded a noon plane to Seattle Monday, the American Hockey League coach broke the news to his Coachella Valley Firebirds squad. Many cheers and hoots and hurrahs ensued.

“Fortunately, I got a chance to tell them in person,” said Bylsma during a conversation early Tuesday morning before a 10:30 press conference at Kraken Community Iceplex to officially announce his new job. “We had some meetings before practice. After practice I was able to to gather the group and look them in the eye after what we've done in Coachella Valley the last couple of years. What they have done as players is a large part of me getting this opportunity.”

Bylsma was in town for roughly 30 hours to talk about that opportunity (receiving an extended and raucous ovation at an all-staff meeting inside the 32 Bar and Grill, meeting with owners at a quarterly board meeting, and then seeing partners and other VIPs at a late afternoon reception) before getting back on a jet to resume the Firebirds second-straight impressive Calder Cup Playoffs run. Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against Milwaukee (a rematch of last spring’s West final) is Wednesday at Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, CA.

At the podium between Kraken owner Samantha Holloway and general manager Ron Francis, Bylsma talked about his “coaching journey,” which includes winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 and becoming the fastest coach to notch 200 regular-season wins during six-straight playoff years with the Penguins. He was head coach in Buffalo for two seasons (2015-17) and spent three more as an assistant with Detroit before Bylsma and Francis talked about an opening as an assistant coach with AHL Charlotte for the 2021-22 season.

Part of Kraken from Inaugural Season

Bylsma accepted what could be described as a consultant role to be the Kraken-centric leader for an AHL franchise that played one season as a split-squad between Seattle and the Florida Panthers. He admitted Tuesday he was hoping the gig would lead to a chance to become head coach of Kraken affiliate Coachella Valley when the 32nd AHL franchise opened play in the 2022-23 season.

“Coaching in the National Hockey League is an extreme honor and privilege,” said Bylsma in opening remarks with the media. “Being in the organization for the last three years I’ve been witness to the path of this organization’s young players ... but also with the veteran players that are here and assembled now, we have a great group of leaders. There’s a group that we can have a lot of success with down the road in building this championship organization.”

Bylsma then paused for effect.

“Having said all that,” said Bylsma, “It hangs in the balance that I still have some other things to do down in Coachella Valley. We’ve got game one tomorrow [Wednesday]. I'm looking very much forward to spending time with you all here right now, but also getting on the plane and getting back to Coachella Valley and getting on with Game 1. We’ve still got some work to do.”

Rediscovering the ‘Joy’

Bylsma said the Charlotte and Coachella Valley roles revived his love of coaching, a calling the new SEA coach said he has known since his playing days in the AHL and NHL.

“My coaching journey over the last three, four years has led me to this point,” said Bylsma when asked if he longed for a third chance as an NHL head coach. “I needed to discover the joy of coaching again, changing a little bit and establishing relationships with the players ... how the [Firebirds] players reacted to me, how we came together as a group has reignited my desire to be at the National Hockey League level. So it's kind of my journey that's led me to this point. I'm better prepared now than maybe I was four years ago."

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Mixing Fun and Serious Passion

While Tuesday’s media meetup inside the Kraken locker room at the training center featured some fun quips and plenty of laughs and smiles, Francis said no one doubts the new coach’s intensity, competitive nature nor his determination to deliver a clear plan to players.

"If you talk to some of his players [with Coachella Valley], there's a passion that he brings to the rink each and every day,” said Francis, who revealed he talked with five candidates for the vacancy and that he doesn’t interview just to interview. “Dan works and strives to build relationships with his players. Yet he's still firm with them.”

One example of Bylsma’s intensity for both winning hockey games and helping players reach their full potential: When Firebirds rookie forward Jacob Melanson (fifth round, 2021) was out at midseason with an upper-body injury, he could still partake in no-stick daily skating sessions to stay in game shape. Bylsma joined Melanson, effectively a third- or fourth-line wing, for those daily skates after practice and team meetings were finished. There was skating and mentoring in every session. Since returning to the lineup, Melanson has been a notable physical presence in the CVF lineup (“each and every night,” per Bylsma) and has been productive in the postseason with a goal and three assists in seven games.

Filling Out the Coaching Staff

When Dave Hakstol was relieved of his coaching duties, so was assistant coach Paul McFarland. Assistants Jay Leach and Dave Lowry were retained. Bylsma said, “I'm going to have conversations with both of those guys” soon.

“There's certainly an opportunity to bring someone in [to join the coaching staff],” said Bylsma, who noted his Firebirds assistants Jessica Campbell and Stu Bickel have been “part of that conversations. Potentially, maybe one person and maybe two people.”

First the Firebirds, Then Shaping the Kraken

Bylsma said he will reach out to all Kraken players on the NHL roster in the coming weeks, but respecting the Firebirds task at hand, of course. He told the media gathering he’s already heard from some players and specifically mentioned he has talked with Jared McCann, Jordan Eberle and Matty Beniers. In a twist, some veterans might even reach out to the likes of Tye Kartye, Ryker Evans and Shane Wright, among others, to find out more about the new coach’s approach on and off the ice.

For his part, Francis said by design that Bylsma’s systems of play will not be altogether different that during the past three seasons with Dave Hakstol behind the bench. There is most definitely a hockey operations' desire to play a certain way in all zones. “Playing fast” and “being hard to play against” are two aspirations.

“There’s going to be a lot of similarities,” said Francis when asked about the style of Bylsma’s upcoming Kraken team and that of Hakstol. “We will discuss some things as we move forward. We want to tweak what we weren't doing as well last year. Offensively, we kind of fell off. Obviously, we need to find a way to tweak some things in the offensive zone to get the offense back ... I think with Dan’s personality and style, how he coaches will mesh well with our locker room and get the best out of our players.”

“Today, my coaching style, it's about relationships,” said Bylsma, who said in his playing days, coaches were more dictorial. “It's about getting on the same page with the player and the individual. They're a part of it. They want to be a part of it. They want to have the discussion. They want to have a clear plan and message as to how they can get better and how they can improve and how the team can play and and be successful.

“There's a much bigger onus on the coach to be able to establish relationships with not only each and every individual on the team but also the team as a whole. It’s incumbent for the coach to make that change.”

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