Bylsma hired: 5 storylines to begin his new era in Seattle

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12: Assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings Dan Bylsma regroups his team in the third period against the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on March 12, 2019 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

Nearly a week has passed since the dawn of a new era hit the Seattle Kraken, where the questions of the coaching search were finally put to rest with a candidate unsurprisingly earning the job who was under their nose for the last three seasons: Dan Bylsma. 

He’s back, and if the AHL proves something, his stock was rising at the time of the hire. Despite the move coming in a rather unconventional method with Bylsma’s Coachella Valley Firebirds still scorching through the Calder Cup Playoffs, and silver-spooning their way to a 2-0 Western Conference Final lead over the Milwaukee Admirals, the Kraken can now begin to game plan with their new bench boss, a revised philosophy, prospects in the system who know him, and a blueprint for a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs which starts at a reboot behind the bench, gets louder through the hot stove season, and gets to full volume with training camp. 

Coming out of hiring day, here are five storylines to keep watch of:  

1.        This could be a different Dan Bylsma than what you may have seen. At the end of his time with the Detroit Red Wings as an assistant coach and following two stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo that both ended in firings, Bylsma went through a professional reboot. 

“I wanted to be talked to, coached, and told I could where I could get better and where my career could go when I was a 22-year old,” Bylsma told 93.3 KJR-FM after last Tuesday’s news conference. 

“I think coaches have had to change, not the player. But I wanted it. So, for me, and kind of how I wanted to be as a coach, was to have a relationship, to get on the same ground level, get in with the player, have a plan and a clear expectation of where I could go, where we could go, what you could do in your career. That’s been great about the last couple years, you get to do it with these young guys who are developing in their career.” 

Professional sports tend to be a “grow or die” field. Coaches often profess to be a different version of themselves than 10-15 years ago. The game has changed from 10-15 years ago. Bylsma’s change, after a sour ending in Buffalo with a pair of playoff misses and soon-to-be-fired general manager Tim Murray’s comments about lack of communication, urged the new Kraken head coach to re-brand himself in the relationship game. Yes, the AHL is a different league than the NHL, but it’s the ultimate development ground for “the show,” and Bylsma’s handling of talent such as Shane Wright, Ryker Evans, Tye Kartye and was proven in the standings, and proven in their roles with the Firebirds. 

Bylsma knows he will have to deliver with a new version of himself, and his work was made for this moment. 

2.        Offense is the vehicle; the playoffs are the finish line. The bar has been set to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A strong start to the season would help. But without question, to get there, the Kraken need to score more goals. Bylsma’s offense philosophy aligns with that need, developing Coachella Valley into an offensive juggernaut. 

On the ice, Francis said to look for a higher horsepower team in the “north/south” game, avoiding the excessive “D to D” passes. In other words, let them fly. The Kraken know offense will sell, but imperatively, it’s the right direction with the personnel they have – and could add – based on Francis’ pledge to have an active off-season. Jared McCann, a season removed from 40 goals, is still here. Jordan Eberle is still here. Others (you’ll read them below) remain who were a part of 2022-23 success. 

“I like to play fast,” said Francis. “I’d like to see us play fast. Hopefully we can get back to looking that way on the ice, the way we did two years ago.” 

Bylsma is only a part of the equation though to restoring the pathway to becoming a playoff team. The Kraken need offensive upgrades this summer. They could theoretically go after free agents like Jake Guentzel, Sam Reinhart, or Elias Lindholm. Mitch Marner could reportedly be traded. Carolina (ring a bell, Mr. Francis?) may have a situation of too many players and not enough dollars. Options will be available, two weeks after Francis said his staff’s pro meetings were held to discuss off-season strategy. 

“We’ve got some time here,” said Francis. “We’ve got some cap space. Hopefully we can do something over the next couple months- whether it’s signing free agents, whether it’s making some trades, like what we did between year one and year two. No guarantee that happens, but we’re certainly looking at that and we have the money and the backing of the ownership to go ahead and try to do that.”   

This will likely not be a 2-1 team that prioritizes suffocating the opposition to death. 

3.        We could be close to seeing Jessica Campbell behind the bench. 

One more role is currently presumed open on the Kraken bench, on the assistant coach side, from the departure of Paul MacFarland (who recently took a WHL head coach job with the Calgary Hitmen). Who fills that role is still a question mark, but Bylsma confirmed in his news conference that Firebirds assistant coach Jessica Campbell is a candidate. 

MacFarland ran the Kraken power play and forwards which immediately brings the attention to Campbell, who is line to become potentially the first female to hold a head coach or assistant coach role in NHL history. Primarily in charge of the Firebirds forwards and the team’s power play units, Coachella Valley was in the upper half of the AHL – 14th each of the last two seasons in a 32-team league – for power play production. But their trademark explosive offense, who led the AHL in goals this season, received 217 of their 252 goals from their forwards – a total of 86 precent of their offense. Both Shane Wright and Ryan Winterton hit the 20-goal range as rookies, while Tye Kartye earned a complete graduation to the NHL level this year after a 28-goal campaign last year as an undrafted AHL rookie – impressive facts to put on the resume. 

Stu Bickel, who also runs the Firebirds defensemen and penalty killing scheme, will also be considered according to Bylsma. Coachella Valley had the seventh best penalty kill last year as an expansion team and followed up this year ranking 11th in the league. 

4.        Who’s going to be captain? That’s still a TBD thing

The start of the off-season, aside from the questions marks surrounding the coaching staff, also involved leadership. The Kraken have played with no captain over each of the last two seasons, paired with the historic playoff “play as a committee” approach last year, and the fabric coming apart at the seams late in the season this year. 

Talks are already underway, and a new coach means potentially new criteria to define a captain, who hasn’t had a formal role in Seattle since defenseman Mark Giordano in the expansion season of 2021-22. He was traded by the March deadline to Toronto. 

“It’s part of a conversation I’ve already begun to have with Ron over the past couple of weeks and one we’re going to have going forward,” Bylsma told 93.3 KJR-FM, shedding a little bit of light into the job interview process. 

“I have my own thoughts about what the captaincy means to the organization, and what it means a to team and the players,” said Bylsma. “I think all of those things are a little bit different and things we’ll consider when that decision is made going forward.” 

Bylsma, who said he’s connected in the past with Jared McCann, Jordan Eberle and Matty Beniers, had the experience of managing a room in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, who will go down as one of the greatest players of all time, and in Buffalo with established veteran Brian Gionta. But Bylsma was careful to avoid getting ahead of the process. 

“I don’t think leadership is a prescribed thing to the team,” said Bylsma, who is still employed by Coachella Valley and finished his news conference multitasking, getting ready for the AHL Western Conference Final. “Putting the ‘C’ on the jersey does not make the person the captain. How they act, how they play, how they work, the presence they bring to the team makes them the captain of the team. Each person can kind of do that in their distinct, own way. But Sidney Crosby - the example he set – the person he is daily, the work ethic he has daily, makes him a great captain.” 

“The same for Brian Gionta as well. We have a lot of those guys here in our room - maybe in the infancy stage going in their career. But we have a lot of those presences in their room.” 

5.        Get the veterans back on track.    

There’s no secret why the Kraken were able to get the best five-on-five scoring in the NHL two seasons ago, only to see the bottom drop out within the last eight months. 

Aside from the abnormally high shooting percentage, Matty Beniers scored 24 goals en route to the Calder Trophy and appeared to be on his way to setting the world on fire. He took a step back with 15 goals and endured nasty scoring droughts, including a 13-game dry spell to begin the season. Andre Burakovsky was well on his way to a 20-goal season two years ago before getting repeatedly and proverbially run over by the injury train. Yanni Gourde, in a depth role at center, was good for 14 goals and sniffed his career high with 48 points during the run to the playoffs. That took a step back last season to 11 goals and 33 points. Getting buy-in immediately from established roster players could play a major role in the foundation of the Bylsma era, where he will be challenged to command a suggested tweak in how the Kraken play and generating offense. 

“Short term, that’s going to be the key,” Kraken radio play-by-play voice Everett Fitzhugh said on 93.3 KJR-FM. 

“When you have a guy like Matty Beniers, Andre Burakovsky, even a guy like Yanni Gourde who took a step back offensively last season, how can we get them back? How can (Bylsma) get them back to that level? How can we get Matty Beniers back to the Calder level? How can we get Andre Burakovsky to where he was last year, in Colorado?” 

Given the fact that Morgan Geekie, Daniel Sprong, and Ryan Donato – who combined for 44 goals – are now a thing of the past and the Kraken will again have to address the glaring hole from that part of the deficit, the production of Beniers and Burakovsky were originally major parts of the blueprint for ascension, and then last year, notably absent (or even Burakovsky’s case, available). 

Beniers, due for a new contract this summer, will command high end ice time. Burakovsky will be in the third year of a five-year deal, command high end ice time and needs a healthy season akin to two years ago, when he scored 13 goals in 49 games, projecting a 21-goal season under a full 82-game schedule. Both are built for a high-octane system, and Bylsma will have to instantly address a challenge of further unlocking their potential. 

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