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 Coachella Valley Firebirds

Firebirds Midseason Report

January 17, 2024 - American Hockey League (AHL)
Coachella Valley Firebirds News Release


At the mid-pole of the franchise's sophomore season (well, 35 contests into the 72-game campaign), the Coachella Valley Firebirds appeared poised to make another deep run through the Calder Cup playoffs.

Of course, being a mere goal removed from an AHL championship in the team's debut year set this season's expectations somewhere between the Exosphere and the lunar surface - but don't sleep on the chances of 'Birds Version 2.0 after what many fans may have viewed as merely an adequate sequel season to-date.

Accounting for some of the title run skepticism may well be CV's mark on home ice, with the Firebirds' charting a 7-7-2-1 mark thus far at Acrisure Arena, a .500 home win clip good for 10th in the Western Conference.

On away ice? CV tracks at a stellar 13-4-1, a win percentage (.750) which is not merely best in the West, but No. 2 in the entire league.

Check the Calendar

Sporting a 20-11-3-1 overall mark at midseason, CV, at 44-points, sits in fourth place in the Pacific Division, with the club just a win away from second and a mere three points behind Pac-leading Calgary. The point tally stands at ninth-best in the league, though it's worthy of note that four teams above the 'Birds have played more games than Coachella Valley as of Jan. 17.

The date stamp makes for further note of worth, as the turn of the calendar proves the meat of the season. Through the first two-and-a-half months of the AHL campaign, CV played just 25 games. From December 27 - February 3? The team will have played 19 games in said stretch, with all but two of said matchups versus divisional opponents.

All told, January proves the most active month of the 'Birds' calendar, with 15 games on the docket. The only other month which comes close in terms of heft is March, which calendars a dozen games (including a mere three at home).

Buckle up, flock, as this flight is just now taking off in earnest.

Chutes and Ladders

A significant difference between CV years 1 and 2, respectively, can be traced to transactions.

Last season, by virtue of parent club Seattle's cumulative run of success and health, the 'Birds saw just seven players recalled all season long, with the vast wealth of said call-ups serving as quick-turnaround one-offs which rarely interrupted the Firebirds' roster or line flow. (And, remember, that Rookie of the Year winner Tye Kartye wasn't recalled until after the 'Birds' regular season concluded, and then, upon Seattle's playoff ouster, returned to the desert for CV's final 18 postseason games.)

This season? CV has already had 11 men called-up by the Kraken. And, sure, while a host of those recalls have also been of the same quickie/one-off/paperwork variety, the transactions have undoubtedly resulted in occasional - and understandable - lacks of continuity. Frequent flyer points don't translate to standings points on the AHL side, which, in turn, renders deserved nods toward the Firebirds' coaching staff for continued wins despite the turnstile roster.

With Seattle's recent returns to the Win and health columns (though, with Matty Beniers placed on IR, forward John Hayden was promoted on Jan. 15), the Firebirds' faithful can (somewhat selfishly) look forward to enhanced line and Special Teams consistency as the team grinds through the heart of the schedule.

Different Dudes, Different Goals

While CV's overt offensive success in Year 1 was oft-accented by a superb match of skate, skill and style, the second season may give some fans the appearance of a lower-output goal tally.

But to read past the cover photo, such an aesthetic is misleading.

In 2022-23, the 'Birds' scored 257 regular season goals, good for 3.56 goals/game and charting third in the AHL (just one netter behind second place Laval in said metric).

This season: Through 35 games, CV has scored 114 times, tracking ninth to-date in the AHL (and just four goals out of sixth in the category). The per/game average? That be 3.26.

Such desert mirage comes via the fact that CV's goals are now being scored by not just different players than last year - but by a more diverse array of players.

In '23, the Firebirds had five players - Max McCormick (67 points), Kole Lind (62), Kartye (57), Cameron Hughes (56) and Brogan Rafferty (51) - ultimately reach the 50-point seasonal threshold and concurrently chart in the league's top-60 in points. All told, 14 different Firebirds had at least 26 points last season.

This year, just a pair of 'Birds - Hughes (32) and McCormick (29) - track in the AHL's top-46 point scorers, and, as the numbers bear out, returning veterans Lind, Andrew Poturalski, Hayden, Luke Henman, Ville Petman, Gustov Olofsson and Jimmy Schuldt have combined for 19 goals thus far into the season.

Yet, to dig further into the nest: all told, 10 'Birds reached double-digit goal totals last year. This season? Thirteen different Firebirds are tracking toward double-digit goal seasons. Chief among the array are a quad of CV young guns all sprouting fine feathers, including 20-year-old Shane Wright (14 goals and 24 points); 20-year-old Ryan Winterton (9 and 15); 21-year-old Logan Morrison (8 and 25); and 20-year-old Jacob Melanson (5 and 9).

Goal scoring isn't the end-all metric it may appear to be, but don't look past how sneaky-good these 'Birds have been in filling the net across the lineup.

Pipe Dreams

The biggest question mark heading into CV's second season is how/with whom the 'Birds would replace their most palpable (and popular) player in netminder Joey Daccord. Succeeding the injured Philipp Grubauer in Seattle, Daccord's desert legend has been validated at the NHL level; presently, he charts fourth in the league in Goals Against (2.28) and fifth in Save Percentage (.923), while authoring 13-6-8 mark.

Of course, with Grubauer's ongoing IR stint (he's been week-to-week for a month), 'Birds' starter Chris Driedger has enjoyed his own call-up, having served as Daccord's backup along the Grubauer timeline.

That has placed 6-foot-5 Ales Stezka firmly between the CV pipes and, game-by-game, the 27-year-old has earned his wings.

After allowing 19 goals in his first four starts of the season, the Czech native has earned four W's in his past five starts since a quick hook vs. Tucson on 12/29, giving up a mere six goals and authoring a pair of shutouts in said five-game span.

While his funky seasonal start continues to impact his stats on the league leaderboard, it's become readily apparent that Stezka is finding increased traction in the crease. And it simply can't be overlooked that Stezka's past five years playing in Europe require some transition time to the AHL, where tighter ice dimensions test all goalies' angles, rink perspective and adjustment to a more muscular and higher-scoring style.

Adjustment noted . . . as are these dual stats: In his first 14 games last season, Daccord gave up more goals (40 vs. 36) and recorded fewer shutouts (2 vs. 1) when compared to Stezka in his first 14 this season.

As for Stezka's helpers: After starting the year with a bunk Penalty Kill, CV has been markedly better on said unit in recent weeks, now charting 10th (81.1%) in the West. Continued improvement with the Kill can only further aid Stezka's strong play.

Midseason Synopsis and Grade

As the 'Birds have flipped the calendar to '24, those still stuck on last year's magical run (and, yes, painful conclusion) need to move on. We're now amid the guts of season No. 2, and, yes, the team is a bit different, the story is a bit different and the style is a bit different.

Coachella Valley isn't winning games like they did in '23 - but they're still winning games!

And while the aesthetic of 3-2 victories may not present the same flair of 5-1 wins, the slightly more grinding, pesky and Blue Collar fashion with which the 'Birds are proceeding is certain to behoove them come the tighter ice of playoff hockey.

As for a grade: While an "I" may seem a copout, the CV season to-date is very much that.

Incomplete.

The squad has neither under-nor-over-achieved, but, rather, have maintained a solid level of play despite the aforementioned turnstile of rostering, four different goaltenders and ushering in a new era of (really good) Baby 'Birds.

With the Pacific Division presenting far more muscle and parity than last season, CV, akin to the division's top eight teams, will have its hands full while jockeying for playoff position down the stretch. The Firebirds are undoubtedly a playoff lock this season, but just how far this version of the 'Birds can fly is a new narrative yet to be penned.


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American Hockey League Stories from January 17, 2024


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