Eyebrows were raised around the hockey world when the Seattle Kraken announced in Aug., 2021, that Dan Bylsma was joining the organization and would serve as assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers. The news immediately got some wheels turning—at least here at Sound Of Hockey—that perhaps Bylsma could be putting himself in line to become the first head coach of the Coachella Valley Firebirds.
Lo and behold, some 10 months later, the Firebirds and Kraken officially announced on Tuesday that Bylsma will be handed the reins.
At the time he joined Charlotte, it was a bit surprising that Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09, would take an AHL assistant role. It seemed like a step back for the former NHL coach, but in retrospect, it was plain to see how he was positioning himself.
“Talking to [Kraken general manager Ron Francis] last season about the opportunity to coach in Charlotte, [Coachella Valley] was on my mind,” Bylsma said Tuesday. “We needed a coach for the development of players in Charlotte last season, but I knew down the road that we’d be going to Coachella, and that would be there.”
Bylsma’s foresight and gamble on himself paid off.
An impressive coaching resume
Bylsma boasts an impressive resume. After a 12-year pro playing career that included 429 NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, he went right into coaching as an assistant for the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. During the 2008-09 season, Bylsma was promoted mid-season from head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, replacing the fired Michel Therrien. The NHL Penguins responded well to Bylsma, and he led them to their first Stanley Cup since 1992.
The Grand Haven, Mich., native won the Jack Adams Award in 2010-11, coached Team USA at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and was the fastest coach ever to reach 250 career NHL wins.
In June, 2014, he was relieved of his duties by the Penguins and eventually signed on as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres starting in 2015. He lasted two seasons there before returning to his hometown Detroit Red Wings, where he was an assistant coach for three seasons before joining the Kraken organization.
Coachella Valley Firebirds coach Bylsma will focus on development
Now back in the AHL, Bylsma knows the focus is on helping young players reach their potential. “A huge responsibility in the organization for the Seattle Kraken is the development of the players and development of the young players coming into the organization,” he said. “Getting an opportunity to do that as a head coach in the American Hockey League is something I take a great deal of pride in, and I’m excited about that opportunity to do it.”
Bylsma has already been working with young Kraken players in Charlotte, where he guided prospects like Alexander True, Cale Fleury, and Max McCormick, three players he thinks are close to being full-timers in the NHL. Getting those types of players over the hump and onto the next level now falls more squarely on Bylsma’s shoulders, but he is ready for the challenge and has been in this position before.
“I think when we look at it from an organization standpoint, it’s such a critical part of the process for us,” added Francis. “We draft these young men, and we ask them to go and play in the American Hockey League, and we try and draft and develop them to get to the NHL. So having a guy with that sort of pedigree—he’s coached at all levels, AHL, NHL, World Championships, he’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s been coach of the year in the NHL—we feel very fortunate we have somebody like Dan to lead that charge and help the development of our young players.”
Plenty of work left to be done in building the Coachella Valley Firebirds
When the inaugural Kraken season ended, Francis went through a laundry list of AHL-related projects ahead of him for this offseason, as he is now tasked with building out the Firebirds from scratch. Deciding on a head coach was one of those items, but that was just the start.
“I would say [the list of responsibilities] is slightly shorter, but it’s still a long list,” Francis said. Some hires left to be made include an athletic trainer, assistant coaches, goalie coaches at both the NHL and AHL levels, a video coach, a skills coach, and—oh, by the way—almost a full roster of players.
Adding one more wrinkle to what will surely be a challenging first season for Coachella Valley, their home venue, Acrisure Arena, will not open until at least December, and their practice facility will not open until at least mid-October.
So, Francis said the AHL team would start the season in Seattle and “play some games up in this area,” making the Kraken Community Iceplex the home base for the Firebirds initially. They will then transition to Coachella Valley when their practice arena opens.
There are plenty of questions left to answer before the Coachella Valley Firebirds can take flight. For now, with Bylsma as the team’s first head coach, one big question has been resolved.
This week, John and Darren talk to the first head coach in Seattle Kraken history, Dave Hakstol. The focus of the conversation is to get Dave’s thoughts on what has transpired over the last week, with the Kraken completing their Expansion Draft, then selecting seven prospects in the NHL Entry Draft, including No. 2 overall pick, Matty Beniers. This is a good insider’s look on what’s happening with the team right now.
Aside from the Hakstol interview, John, Andy, and Darren give their own takes on what has been happening around the Kraken and the rest of the league, including their thoughts on where the Seattle roster stands and where it might end up before opening night. Plus, plenty of general NHL trade talk, signing talk, schedule talk, and free agency talk.
One thing we already know about the Seattle Kraken is that they know how to keep a secret. A year ago, they announced the team’s name, logo, and jersey design with nary a leak. No stolen mockups made the rounds, and we all experienced the name together.
A week ago, they struck again by hiring Dave Hakstol as the first Kraken head coach. Hakstol’s name was not mentioned by all the self-proclaimed media insiders leading up to the official announcement.
Yet there he was at the Edgewater Inn, sitting between general manager Ron Francis and CEO Tod Leiweke last Thursday.
“We didn’t do anything extraordinary,” Francis said about keeping the hire a secret. “Dave was employed by Toronto, so we didn’t want that being out there and a distraction, as he’s coaching with the Leafs so we just had the conversations, we talked about things and, you know, I think a lot of that credit goes to Dave. He just didn’t talk about it to anybody and when you don’t do that it doesn’t get out there.”
Seems simple enough.
So, what kind of coach are the Kraken getting in Hakstol? What kind of team will he put on the ice?
“If you go through an 82-game schedule and hopefully into a playoff run, resiliency is a huge part of what our team will be about,” Hakstol said. “It’s not always easy. The teams that relish those tough days and want to come back and battle together. Those are the teams that have success. I’ve always said humility as part of the group, humility to hold standards really allows you to respect this game and the game deserves respect … those are some of the different elements that lead us to the opportunity that we have here in terms of building tradition.”
Dave Hakstol and numbers
The Kraken have built a robust and highly credentialed analytics staff as part of their hockey operations. Led by Alex Mandrycky, it’s obvious that Seattle will use analytics as a tool towards building, and sustaining, a successful on-ice product.
It seems to reason that hiring a coach willing to embrace and work with analytics would be of importance.
“You know when I was actually being interviewed for my position that was something we came up with,” Francis said. “The ownership group is interested in that and thought that we should make that a part of our processes as we build out our team. So, certainly when we were asking the questions on the coaches, there were questions surrounding analytics and we did that with everybody. It wasn’t the only question, but it was certainly part of the process to make our final decision for sure.”
Not all coaches have embraced analytics in today’s NHL.
It seems counter intuitive not to. Embracing analytics doesn’t mean you turn into a robot, relying on charts to set your line combinations, or make adjustments to your game plan. The data, however, informs the decisions that the coach eventually has to make.
There’s nothing wrong with making tough calls armed with as much information as possible.
“It’s a phenomenal tool for us as coaches to evaluate and to discover and to find different avenues to improve our team,” Hakstol said. “The second piece of that is still a very human game 100% on the ice, it’s played with emotion and passion… So, the combination of the two is valuable. Never forget, this is a game that’s played on emotion and it’s a human game.”
Hakstol’s time in Philadelphia was a mixed bag
Hakstol was just the third coach to go straight from coaching in college to the NHL when he accepted the head coaching gig with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015. It came after an impressive 11-year run in college with the University of North Dakota.
He spent three full seasons with the Flyers — he was let go 31 games into his fourth year after a 12-15-4 start — and led them to the playoffs twice.
The numbers for those Flyers teams are what you would expect for a middling team that made it into the postseason but lost in the first round. Their underlying metrics were all around 50 percent, including an expected goals forced percentage of 51. His goaltending was perhaps a bit under par with a collection of guys that included Steve Mason, Brian Elliott, and a group of seven additional journeymen who manned the pipes during his last season.
Over the three full years he was a coach, the Flyers’ goalies combined for a high-danger save percentage of 79 percent, which was 30th in the league for that time. Hakstol needed a guy to make a save for him.
None of that is to suggest that Hakstol was responsible for the Flyers inability to find a consistent goaltender. That’s long been a hitch in the Flyers’ stride and was so until Carter Hart arrived at the end of Hakstol’s tenure in 2018-2019.
It’s also tough to glean too much information from the stats of those Flyers teams when assessing Hakstol. Even the best coaches require talented players and the Flyers’ struggles this past season, where they failed to make the playoffs with a minus-38 goal differential, suggest that the team’s problems were deeper than coaching.
Hakstol has a chance now to take the lessons learned from that experience, plus two years as an assistant with a good Toronto team, and apply them to the Kraken, something he talked about last week.
There have been many cases of “second chance” coaches who didn’t win big in their first go-around but would get a second shot and end up succeeding. See Gerard Gallant, who had only a first-round loss in four years between Columbus and Florida before taking Vegas to the Cup Final in 2018.
Or check out Pete DeBoer, who has taken two teams, New Jersey and San Jose, to the Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four conference finals. Before all that he spent three seasons as the Florida Panthers head coach (2008-2011) and missed the playoffs each time.
Hakstol’s track record shows that he knows the game and knows how to win. That’s what led him to be the first Kraken head coach.
Coach Hakstol on team leadership with Kraken
During last Thursday’s press conference, Hakstol talked about the task ahead.
He has to put together a coaching staff and prepare to take a collection of payers thrown together after the Expansion Draft on July 21.
Part of that is finding leadership. There won’t be an established leader when the team first is assembled. The Vegas Golden Knights had the same challenge and famously didn’t have a captain until turning to Mark Stone this past season. Leadership is an important part of a hockey team and with the constant turnover of a college roster, it’s something Hakstol has some experience with.
“There may be that one guy that’s just absolute,” he said. “If that’s the case that usually becomes pretty apparent. With any group that I’ve coached I look at the core group. Our core leadership group. What the number of that group is, I don’t know what that number will be, maybe it’s four, five, maybe six, but its more so than just solely focusing on who the captain will be. It’s focusing on that leadership group.”
Don’t be surprised if there is no official Kraken captain in year one.
This felt like the last big pre-we’re-a-real-team milestone, didn’t it? Kraken general manager Ron Francis has been maintaining for MANY months that the organization’s hiring plan for its first head coach was to wait for the end of the NHL season to see what options were available. The second piece of the plan was to have the coach in place by the end of the second quarter of 2021. With just six days to spare before that self-imposed deadline, the team finally did the damn thing and hired Dave Hakstol as the first coach in Seattle Kraken franchise history, just as absolutely nobody anticipated.
Dave Hakstol hired as Seattle Kraken Head Coach
Why Dave Hakstol was never really considered a candidate to be the first Seattle Kraken Head Coach is anybody’s guess, but the best way we can explain it is… well… nobody ever really asked if Dave Hakstol was a candidate. He certainly ticks the boxes of being somebody with NHL head coaching experience and also somebody who believes that analytics are a useful tool for teams to evaluate and improve. He also—despite being fired by the Flyers after four seasons—had a winning record in Philadelphia and took a relatively young team to the playoffs twice.
And being that he just wrapped up a two-year stint as an assistant coach in hockey-crazed Toronto, how did Hakstol and the Kraken manage to keep his name out of the rumor mill all the way until Thursday morning?
“Actually, we didn’t do anything—I would think—extraordinary,” Francis said during Hakstol’s introductory presser on Thursday. “We first talked to Dave last year. I mean, it’s an interesting process because sometimes you talk to teams, and they request that you keep it quiet. At the time, Dave was employed by Toronto so you certainly don’t want that out there as a distraction as he’s coaching with the Leafs.”
Francis added, “So you know on our end, we just had the conversations, we talked about things, and I think a lot of that credit goes to Dave. He just didn’t talk about it to anybody and when you don’t do that, it doesn’t get out there. So, as I said, we had multiple conversations, and it was able to be kept sort of in house until this morning.”
As far as introductory press conferences go, it really was a good one. Hakstol carries himself as somebody who perfectly fits the mold of what the Kraken were seeking. He looks and sounds like a coach who has been here before, and he’s excited for—but also humbled by—the opportunity to lead an expansion franchise as its first-ever bench boss.
We at Sound Of Hockey were certainly surprised by the hire, but we dig it. Let us know what you think about Dave Hakstol as the first Seattle Kraken head coach!
Stanley Cup Final matchup set
Sure, everybody had the Tampa Bay Lightning and their “$18-million-over-the-cap” payroll in the Stanley Cup Final. But there cannot have been too many brackets out there that featured the Montreal Canadiens as one of the two last teams standing.
It’s hard to even explain how the Habs have gotten to this point. They still are not and never have been the best team in this tournament, but they’ve played the style of hockey that gets it done in the playoffs and have done so to near perfection. Outstanding team defense. Clutch scoring. Elite goaltending. That’s the formula.
Meanwhile, the Bolts return for a chance at a second-consecutive swig from Lord Stanley’s Cup.
It’s funny how the tides of public perception turn so quickly when your team wins. It felt like everyone was pulling for Tampa Bay in last year’s bubble, and now they feel like this evil empire, just toying with the hearts and minds of hockey fans everywhere.
Following suit in the semifinals, America really appeared to be cheering for the Islanders, who were impressive again this season. Barry Trotz’s troops gave everything they had to try to find an equalizer in Friday’s Game 7. But remarkably, potential future Seattle Kraken Yanni Gourde’s short-handed tally early in the second period was enough to skate Tampa Bay back into the Final.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final gets underway Monday at 5 P.M. on NBC Sports, not the main network. Based on their schedule, it would appear that local news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and American Ninja Warrior take precedent over the Stanley Cup Final. NBC has officially mailed it in. We are very ready for the NHL’s new TV partners to take over.
Another hockey team hiring hockey people
Look who’s back in the fold for the Canucks!
Man, I sure hated these guys in my formative years as a Minnesota Wild fan, but now that I live so close to Vancouver and have had a glimpse at how much they mean to that city, I get it. It really does make a lot of sense for Henrik and Daniel Sedin to be employed by the team with which they became so synonymous over their playing careers.
The Sedins have been hired as special advisers to the general manager, which gives a real “Assistant TO the Regional Manager” vibe. Hopefully for Vancouver fans, the twins can kickstart the team’s seven-year plan, which is now entering its eighth year.
Twitter had a couple funnies about the simultaneous hirings that we thought were worth sharing.
Celine Dion shuns her homeland
As the NHL Stanley Cup Semifinals reached their respective boiling points this week, Celine Dion may have pushed the city of Montreal over the edge, had the Habs not ultimately won the series.
The Quebec native and French Canada’s favorite daughter appeared in a pre-game hype video on the Jumbotron (do we still call them Jumbotrons?) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas sporting heavy makeup, a Vegas hockey helmet, and [gasp!] a Golden Knights jersey.
How could you, Celine?
There are some conspiracy theories out there that the photo was doctored, but we will continue to investigate this very important topic.
Anyway, the Canadiens won the game and eventually the series, so Habs fans’ hearts will go on.
Around the boards
The local WHL squads released their full schedules this week for the 2021-22 season. Both the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds will play their home openers against the Portland Winterhawks on Oct. 8 and 9 respectively. The Silvertips Preseason Classic, which did not take place in 2020-21 will return this season, starting on Sept. 10.
Congratulations to our good friend, Ryan Hardy, who was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs to join their front office in a role to be determined. Hardy built the Chicago Steel of the USHL into an absolute powerhouse organization and is a hilarious and generally awesome dude. Well deserved.
Darren Brown is the Chief Content Officer at Sound Of Hockey and the host, producer, and editor of the Sound Of Hockey Podcast. He is an inconsistent beer league goalie who believes that five players have to make a mistake before the puck gets to him. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenFunBrown or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEATTLE – After keeping the name under wraps amidst a tempest of rumor and speculation, the Seattle Kraken announced Thursday morning that Dave Hakstol would become the first head coach of the expansion franchise.
Hakstol, 52, spent the last two seasons as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs after four-plus seasons as the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Once in town, he and his family were introduced to the Seattle media at a press conference held at the Edgewater Hotel.
“It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind, but what a great whirlwind,” Hakstol said.
The Kraken did an outstanding job keeping Hakstol’s name a secret. Over the past few months, names like Rick Tocchet, Joel Quenneville, Gerard Gallant, Kevin Dineen, Tony Granato, and Joe Sacco had emerged as potential candidates to take the job. Nobody mentioned Hakstol’s name until Thursday morning.
It’s surprising because Seattle general manager Ron Francis says that the team’s first discussions with the new coach began last summer. The seed may have been planted long before, however.
“In 2019 with Hockey Canada, I was part of the management team and Dave was part of the coaching staff,” Francis said. “We got to spend four weeks together over in Austria. I got to know him as a person and kind of watch his work ethic and how he operated… as we went through the process, he was certainly a guy that I had an interest in talking to.
“He’s been in the league for six years, he’s worked with some different coaches in getting a lot more experience. I like the way he communicates his message and I know he cares about his players. So all those things made it the right choice for me as a coach.”
Hakstol’s coaching career began in the USHL when he took over mid-season for the struggling Sioux City Musketeers in 1996. The team only won eight games that first year, but Hakstol would quickly turn the franchise around, and over the next three campaigns he had a 96-53-11 record.
He would leave the USHL to become an assistant coach for his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, in 2000. He spent the next three seasons as an associate coach before being named head coach in 2004. For the next 11 years, Hakstol guided North Dakota to winning records, topping a .600 winning percentage every season, while reaching the Frozen Four seven times.
That led to Hakstol being hired in 2015 by the Philadelphia Flyers, making the jump from college to the NHL. In Philadelphia, Hakstol brought the Flyers to the playoffs twice – in 2016 and 2018 – before being let go early into the 2018-2019 season. He compiled a 134-101-42 overall record with the Flyers.
“I think there’s a lot of guys who have gotten that second chance and really take advantage of it,” Francis said.
Hakstol’s second chance comes after two seasons of looking at the coaching position from a different angle.
After spending time as an assistant in college, he again lived the assistant life for two NHL seasons under Mike Babcock and Sheldon Keefe in Toronto. That experience will be added to his prior time as a head coach as he takes over in Seattle.
“It definitely brings a different perspective,” Hakstol said of his Toronto experience. “You know, it’s a different routine and rhythm within your daily organization, no question about that, but it’s also a little different perspective with the players. I had an opportunity to work with two outstanding coaches with both Mike and Sheldon in Toronto as well as the other assistant coaches that were there. The people surrounding you, you take a piece from.”
With the July 21 Expansion Draft a month away, he plans on hitting the ground running. Hakstol will put together a coaching staff and begin to prepare for players coming on board. There will not be a lot of time, as after the Expansion Draft the team will have just a couple of short months before training camp opens in September.
What is Hakstol going to do now that he’s officially the first coach of the Kraken?
“Don’t waste a day,” he said. “There’s a ton of work to do and we don’t have any time to waste there. It’s not waiting until training camp to begin putting our team together, it’s building relationships with players immediately (after the Expansion Draft) so we have to be ready to go.”