Kovacevic: Heat on Bylsma? Uh, no
Let's get this out of the way right now: Dan Bylsma isn't going anywhere, no matter what happens to the Penguins in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
He'll still be head coach if they don't win it all.
He'll still be head coach if they win a couple of rounds.
He'll still be head coach if they're swept out without a solitary W, or whatever other fatalistic scenario anyone cares to envision.
And there sure has been a lot of that in these parts lately, hasn't there?
Let me repeat: Bylsma isn't going anywhere.
I'm not guessing at that. The gentlemen who run this franchise — all of them, no exceptions, right to the top — believe in him emphatically. And I've been assured up, down and sideways that sentiment won't change based on this postseason.
And really, why would it?
Step back from this scene, tune out your nightmares of Mike Cammalleri, Dwayne Roloson and Claude Giroux, and look at how this particular set of expectations has been set up.
Start with ownership, as all winning organizations do. Because of the one-time cap “transition” year that resulted from the NHL lockout, teams could spend up to a league-record $70.2 million before it drops dramatically to $64.3 million next season. Rather than begin to tiptoe back downward, as many teams have, the Penguins went bold and added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and others to push to a franchise-record $67 million.
That was authorized by Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
Will they get blamed if this team falls short?
Don't think so.
Ray Shero assessed the roster that the Flyers laughed off last spring and, rather than stubbornly insist he'd done some masterful job, he attacked the weaknesses. He brought in Tomas Vokoun to address the most painful of those — Fleury's miserable play — and it paid handsomely. He didn't want to lose Jordan Staal, but he parlayed that lousy situation into Brandon Sutter, a player he was — correctly — confident would make a better fit. He never found the blue-line snarl he'd hoped to add last year, but this time he got Douglas Murray. He never had a reliable fill-in for his top-six forwards last year, but this time he got Jussi Jokinen.
Iginla and Morrow, too.
All without shipping out a player on the current roster.
Will the NHL's best general manager get blamed if this team falls short?
So tell me now: Why would Bylsma?
I get that it's human nature to whittle out an individual or two to blame, fair or not, when any team fails to meet expectations. Especially a team that's performed at the Penguins' level over recent years.
I also get that Bylsma has earned legitimate criticism — including from this corner — for his playoff shortcomings, notably a failure to adjust to line matchups and predictable special teams.
But this season's got a very different feel in that regard.
Adjustments have been made. We've seen honest-to-Scotty line matchups, more rhythmic breakouts rather than half-rink Hail Mary passes, tighter backchecking through the neutral zone, a power play no longer confined to the perimeter and penalty killers no longer simply wiggling their sticks.
Anyone remember James Neal opening the year on the left point?
It was a bad idea, but it took Bylsma a mere week to bury it.
Oh, and another difference: Have you seen this roster?
I guess that's really the point to all this.
We know that the commitment and execution was there in the front office.
We know that the coach's base system not only works — a 36-12 regular season, capped by the 8-3 annihilation of the Hurricanes on Saturday night, can't be sculpted from skill alone — but also that it's a fine fit for the players at hand.
We know that it's a highly motivated and focused collection of athletes, also a credit to the men overseeing them.
So, revisiting all those forecasts of David Volek-esque doom, who will be to blame if these extraordinary Penguins fail to meet what are justifiably extraordinary demands?
You know it.
The 28 gentlemen populating this roster.
Because if you can concoct any excuse for why anything less should be expected of a team with the planet's two best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a 40-goal gunner in Neal, a future Hall of Famer in Iginla, a revitalized Morrow, the career-best versions of Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke and Paul Martin, all the two-way types dotting the third and fourth lines, a Norris Trophy edition of Kris Letang, ample goaltending, all the toughness and tenacity and talent … well, don't share it with anyone in that locker room.
“Absolutely, we feel that responsibility,” Matt Niskanen was saying Saturday. “This is an opportunity that might not come around again for a lot of guys. It's time to seize the moment, bear down and do whatever you have to.”
“Top to bottom, it's hard to find any holes or weaknesses,” Mark Eaton said of the roster. “But there is that cliché: That's on paper. We have to go out there and play the games. There's no questions the pieces are there. It's up to us to make sure all the pieces are going like they're supposed to. The players in the room are one group now. It's up to us to get this job done.”
You can think of better hands to hold that responsibility?