Game 5 an Acrisure Arena farewell for Bylsma

Photo: Mike Zitek

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Win or lose, tonight is the end of an era for Dan Bylsma.

The new head coach of the Seattle Kraken will stand behind the home bench at Acrisure Arena for the final time tonight when his Coachella Valley Firebirds host Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals (9 ET/6 PT, AHLTV, NHL Network).

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of Bylsma’s official hiring as the first head coach in Firebirds history. A little more than three weeks ago, on May 28, he was named the second head coach in Kraken history.

Bylsma’s career has seen him hit all kinds of markers for success. As an assistant, he helped the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins reach the Calder Cup Finals in 2008. He won the Stanley Cup as Pittsburgh’s head coach months after being promoted from Wilkes-Barre in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In 2011, he won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s outstanding coach. He became the fastest NHL coach to reach 200 wins. He led the United States men’s team at the 2014 Olympics, and won bronze medals for his country twice at the IIHF World Championship.

But after leaving Pittsburgh, he lasted only two years as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs both times. He went to Detroit, where he was a Red Wings assistant coach for three seasons in which that club did not make the postseason cut, either. By the end of the 2020-21 season, Bylsma needed a change, so he came back to the AHL. It was a familiar place, a league where he had played 429 games across 12 years with six teams before beginning his coaching career with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in 2004.

The Kraken, who began play in 2021-22 as an NHL expansion team, had a role for Bylsma. They were going to share the Charlotte Checkers for a season with the Florida Panthers while construction of Acrisure Arena was completed. So Bylsma went to Charlotte to work as an assistant coach. After those high-profile NHL years, he would be back to the grind of hockey’s top development league.

“There was some humbling, for sure,” Bylsma said last year. He admits openly that he needed to rediscover his passion for coaching when he came back to the AHL.

“I thanked the guys in Charlotte,” Bylsma said, “and I’m going to thank these guys because they remind me what coaching is all about.”

Bylsma was tapped to lead the Firebirds, and the first season in Coachella Valley exceeded any realistic expectations. After beginning the season by spending two months on the road awaiting completion of Acrisure Arena, the Firebirds finished second in the overall AHL standings with a 48-17-5-2 record (103 points) before going through five rounds of Calder Cup play before ultimately falling to Hershey in Game 7 of the Finals.

In year two, the Firebirds again finished second overall in the regular season with 103 points, and they sit two wins away from a championship that Bylsma badly wants.

Why has Bylsma clicked so well with players in his return to the AHL after reaching the top heights of the coaching profession?

Firebirds defenseman Connor Carrick spent the 2021-22 season in Charlotte as one of the Checkers’ Seattle-contracted players. He took a detour to Providence last season before returning to the Kraken organization last summer.

“He’s a tremendous coach,” Carrick said, “and Seattle’s getting a great hire. He cares about each and every player. He understands the role that each and every player brings. He has provided constructive feedback, encourages players to express themselves. He really inspires his players to want to be their best.”

Rookie forward Shane Wright is expected to be a key piece of Seattle’s future, perhaps as soon as next season. He and Bylsma have worked extensively to ready him for full-time NHL work.

“He knows how to prepare us so that we’re always prepared with everything,” said Wright. “He knows what to say at the right time. He knows when to keep it light as well. I’ve really taken a lot of things that he’s passed on to me.”

For all of his success at the NHL level and developing talent in the AHL, one item remains on Bylsma’s to-do list, and it is one that is crucial to him. There is still important unfinished business for him with these Firebirds.

“I think we all have goals in our career,” Bylsma said after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, “and I haven’t won a Calder Cup yet. I desperately want to win a Calder Cup.”