Written by Judd Spicer
Less than four months removed from playing in Game 7 of the Calder Cup finals in their inaugural campaign, the Coachella Valley Firebirds return to their Acrisure Arena home sheet for a sophomore season winged with all manner of potential and possibility.
While the ‘Birds will enthusiastically hang aloft their 2022-23 Western Conference Championship banner for the team’s home opener on Friday, October 13 vs. the Bakersfield Condors, the returning 2023-24 squad appears wholly motivated to add a bigger piece of hardware to the franchise mantle.
To wit: By virtue of parent club Seattle returning to the ice with its own loaded squad; a host of familiar faces back in CV; and the Firebirds welcoming to the nest a fresh flock of budding talent and former NHLers . . . yeah, get ready for another season of flying high.
In short, this sequel version of the ‘Birds appears totally stacked and may well threaten the 103-point franchise standard (second best in the AHL) set in the team’s debut year.
As of this writing (two days before the opener), of the 30 players currently on the ‘Birds’ roster, 14 of them were among the 20 men who dressed for Game 7 in last year’s title game.
For some further number crunch: Two of those 20 players from Game 7 – Joey Daccord and Tye Kartye – made the Kraken roster; three (Eddie Wittchow, Carsen Twarynski and Matt Tennyson) remain unsigned free agents; and three more – Brogan Rafferty, Alexander True and Jesper Froden – signed elsewhere.
While the new season takes shape, an additional number of note is 22 – that’s how many players the Kraken rostered heading into their own seasonal opener, a tally one short of the league max. With no waiver claims made by Seattle to fill the slot, look for one of the ‘Birds – perhaps Ryker Evans, who received raves at Kraken camp – to receive a call-up to the big club in the near future.
And, of course, with the Firebirds’ ECHL affiliate in Kansas City readying for its own season opener on October 20, a few more shifting parts are likely amid this opening month of play.
To date, of the new names and returning rosterees, here’s how the 2023-24 CV Firebirds are taking shape:
Returning: Luke Henman; Kole Lind; Max McCormick; Cameron Hughes; Ian McKinnon; Andrew Poturalski; Ville Petman; Jeremy McKenna; John Hayden; Shane Wright.
New: Nolan Walker; Ryan Winterton; Tucker Robertson; Marian Studenic; Jacob Melanson; Devin Shore; Logan Morrison.
Numbers to Know:
- 422. That’s how many games off-season signee Devin Shore has played in the NHL. Skating for four teams from 2015-23 – Dallas, Anaheim, Columbus and Edmonton – the 29-year-old has authored 50 career goals and 85 assists at the top level.
- 48. That’s how many points newcomer Marian Studenic tallied in 67 regular season games for the tough Texas Stars last year. In four games against CV (of which Texas won three), the lefty winger had a trio of assists. Oh, and in the Stars’ eight postseason games last season, the 24-year-old Slovakian added two more goals and four assists.
Name to Know: Jacob Melanson. Across 59 regular season games for a pair of squads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year, the former 5th round pick (2021) of the Kraken amassed . . . wait for it . . . 99 points! Oh, and in the league’s postseason, the 6-foot-1 (and burly) 20-year-old added 15 more points in 14 playoff games. Known for the type of physicality and temperament befitting Troy Bodie, ‘Birds VP of Hockey Ops, it will be fascinating to see how this budding talent mixes with the deep cache of CV scoring studs.
Returning: Peetro Seppala; Gustav Olofsson; Jimmy Schuldt; Ryker Evans.
New: Nate Knoepke; Mitch Reinke; Ville Ottavainen; Connor Carrick; Cale Fleury.
Number to Know: 522. That’s the number of games played by newcomer Connor Carrick across his NHL/AHL career. As for the split: Almost right down the middle, with the 29-year-old having appeared in 242 top level games for five NHL squads. With sturdy vets Wittchow and Tennyson no longer on the ‘Birds’ blue line, and with Evans’ AHL time likely limited, look for Carrick’s experience to help shore-up the unit.
Name to Know: Peetro Seppala. Sure, the native Fin appeared in 70 games for CV last year and was a regular season mainstay. But a late-season injury cost him the thrilling postseason, and the 23-year-old appeared in nary a playoff game. While he won’t fill-up a box score (just 12 points in those 70 games), the guy is a rock-solid, pure defender and it’s understandable why head coach Dan Bylsma considered him an unsung hero of the ‘Birds’ 48-win debut season.
Returning: Chris Driedger.
New: Jason Castor; Ales Stezka; Jack LaFontaine.
Number to Know: Twelve. That’s how many total goals Chris Driedger allowed in his final seven games for the Firebirds last year (from March 24 – April 14). In his first seven? Driedger allowed 23 total goals.
Name to Know: Driedger. A veteran of 58 NHL starts (with a solid 30-23-5 record to show for it), the soon-to-be 30-year-old (with a, gulp, $4.5 million Seattle price tag on the year) will be starting between the pipes for the ‘Birds this season after Joey Daccord earned the backup gig for the Kraken.
Though the single syllable “Chris” may not have the same ring as “Jo-ey! Jo-ey!” chants, Driedger is no doubt motivated to get back on an NHL roster amid this third and final season of the 3-year, $10.5 million deal he inked with the Kraken in ’21, after Seattle selected him in the expansion draft via Florida. And while he should surely benefit from what looks to be another season of high-scoring output for CV, know that Driedger is nothing if not tenacious in his own right.
With 75 ECHL games on his resume, along with 153 more in the AHL, the guy has been battling for net work for over a decade; after tearing his right ACL in the IIHF World Championships in the summer of ’22, he fought hard to get healthy and back between the pipes. After his suspect starts in his initial work for CV, Driedger did round into form and show that he’s still got the game to be, if nothing else, a high-end starter in the AHL.