The puck drops at 7:00 pm PT tonight on a new season for the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Kraken’s AHL affiliate. Between Josh Horton, me, and the rest of the Sound Of Hockey team, we hope to bring you more Firebirds and Kraken prospect coverage than ever this year. We’re brainstorming a few ideas on how to do that, so we hope you follow along. Let’s start our journey in the desert by reacquainting ourselves with the team, previewing the lineup, and identifying a few storylines to follow early this season.

But, before we get to that, an important public service announcement: The Firebirds’ opener tonight, October 13, against the Bakersfield Condors is free to stream on AHL TV. Check it out here.

Recapping the 2022-23 Season

In their inaugural season, the Firebirds made quite the impression. Coachella Valley racked up 103 points in the standings, second in the AHL only to the Calgary Wranglers. The team was strong across the board in the regular season, checking in with the third most goals scored and second best goal differential among the 32 AHL clubs. That strength extended into the goal with Joey Daccord tallying .918 save percentage in 38 regular season games.

The season culminated with a championship run that came agonizingly close to the Calder Cup. In their record-setting 26th postseason game, the Firebirds made it to overtime of game 7 of the finals against the Hershey Bears before a Mike Vecchione shot snuck by Joey Daccord to deliver victory to the AHL’s oldest franchise. Hard to imagine a tougher end to the season, but it is also hard to imagine a team and a fanbase that had more fun along the way than the 2022-23 Coachella Valley Firebirds.

The 2023-24 lineup

On October 10, 2023, the Coachella Valley Firebirds reassigned eight players to the Kansas City Mavericks of the ECHL, including 2022 7th round draft pick Kyle Jackson. This brought some clarity to the team’s initial roster, which stands at 27 players:

The team rotated the lines and pairs in their only preseason outing on October 8, 2023, so we don’t have a great sense of precisely how these players will fit together when the team takes the ice on Friday night. 

Last season we often saw Kole Lind and captain Max McCormick skating together on a top line (often centered by the departed Alex True). I wouldn’t expect that change. Andrew Poturalski and Cameron Hughes were also stalwarts in the top-six, and I’d expect that to continue as well. On the blue line, the team’s top two left-shot defenseman return in Gustav Olofsson and Ryker Evans, but there has been some shuffling on the right side.

Without the benefit of being at practice or the preseason games, here is a guess (and I emphasize guess) at a lineup the team could deploy Friday night:

If the team holds out Shore or Hayden based on the injury situation in Seattle, I’d expect one of Robertson or Melanson to draw in.

Having shared this guesswork, I’ll also caution against overreacting to a veteran-heavy opening night lineup if Robertson, Melanson, or Ottavainen aren’t in there, for example. The team did not have much preseason ice time, particularly after the team’s first exhibition was canceled due to a power outage. After the Friday night opener, the team does not have another regular season game for eight days. This leaves ample runway for the Firebirds to practice and evaluate its group of young players before game number two.

How the Firebirds stack up around the AHL

Though several Seattle Kraken drafted prospects have begun to arrive in the desert, the team is still a year-or-two away from a “normal” situation where draft picks are regularly cycling in-and-out. As a result, the team remains heavy on veterans. According to data tracked by Elite Prospects, the Firebirds will start the 2023-24 season as the tenth-oldest AHL team based on average player age. (The Firebirds were the fifth-oldest AHL team by the same metric last year.) 

This year’s squad will be increasingly reliant on speed and skill. While the team ranked among the top-ten tallest and heaviest teams last season, based on player averages, many of the squad’s larger players up front and on the blue line departed in the offseason. This leaves the team in the no. 25 in the league average player height and middle-of-the-pack in player weight.

The skill should still be there though. The team returns two top-20 scorers in Max McCormick and Kole Lind, another just outside the top-30 in Cameron Hughes, and a player in Andrew Poturalski who has led the AHL in scoring in the past (though he missed time with an injury last year). Add to this stable of veteran scorers a wave of younger players that have scored effectively at junior levels and the team should do well putting the puck in the net.

Finally, as I noted earlier in the summer, this is one of the more expensive rosters in the AHL. The Kraken have invested heavily in a winning development program. The product in Palm Desert should remain strong.

Andrew Poturalski skates at Climate Pledge Arena (Photo/Brian Liesse)

Key departures

The team sees its starting goaltender (and one of its emotional leaders), Joey Daccord, and third leading scorer, Tye Kartye, begin the season with the Seattle Kraken. Beyond that, the team lost its sixth leading scorer, Jesper Froden and inaugural Kraken Alexander True and Carsen Twarynski in free agency. On the blue line, the team lost its top scoring defenseman, Brogan Rafferty, and an experienced, tough player in Matt Tennyson. I don’t have many questions about the team’s scoring ability, but goal prevention will be an area to watch early in the season.

Key additions

Former Charlotte Checker and offensive-minded, right-shot defenseman Connor Carrick rejoins the Kraken organization for the 2023-24 season. In doing so, he’ll be reunited with former Checker teammate and fellow righty defenseman Cale Fleury, who will begin the season with Coachella Valley after sticking in Seattle for the entirety of the 2022-23 campaign. Marian Studenic is a proven and prolific AHL goal scorer up front the team added in free agency. 

Coachella Valley also welcomes a group of six Kraken prospects to the team, each of whom could play a role at some point during the season: Shane Wright, Ryan Winterson, Tucker Robertson, Jacob Melanson, Logan Morrison, and Ville Ottaivenen. 

Three storylines to watch early in the season

Shane Wright. This is the big one. Wright logged 32 games with the Firebirds last season, mostly in the playoffs, but it was amidst a “planes trains and automobiles” season that likely left his head spinning. This year, there is no such uncertainty about where he’ll play or how much he’ll play. Kraken GM Ron Francis told the media after Wright’s reassignment that the team had given Wright areas to work on and the team was looking forward to seeing him play heavy minutes in all situations. Wright’s development is the biggest storyline to follow from the Kraken perspective because the young forward’s potential is so high if he can put the pieces together.

Shane Wright skates during camp scrimmage (Photo/Brian Liesse)

The goaltending tandem. Chris Driedger should be the stronger half of a tandem in goal as he comes back from an ACL injury at the 2022 World Championships. If he can start to show he is still the player that the Kraken targeted and signed to be one of the team’s NHL goalies before its inaugural season, interest may grow internally and from other clubs to get him back to the NHL. 

Driedger’s partner, Ales Stezka, is also interesting. Stezka is coming off an elite season in the Czech Extraliga, which is one of the best professional leagues in the world. Already 26 years old, he’s entering his goalie prime. If he can translate his high level play to North America, he’ll put Coachella Valley in a great position to win this season and give the Kraken a lot to think about when it comes to extending the relationship beyond Stezka’s current one-year deal.

Prospects that acclimate quickly. The story of Tye Kartye is well-known at this point. Despite coming in as an undrafted free agent, Kartye forced his way into the lineup of a talented Coachella Valley club last year. Then, as the season progressed, he worked his way up the lineup, and eventually he skated with the Kraken in the playoffs. 

Is there a rookie that takes the same trajectory this year? That’s a hard standard to live up to, but it starts early in the season with ice time. Which young players have gained the coaching staff’s confidence and have seized a role? 

Lesser known players like Morrison, Robertson, and Melanson all have the potential to do it. Morrison brings skill and offensive instincts if he can up his skating game like Kartye did. Robertson is a 200-foot center with high level hockey sense who could emerge if he can score just enough. Melanson is a physical player and agitator with enough skill to score in a professional lineup if he can maintain his sandpaper play style against bigger and faster competition. All eyes will be on them from Seattle.