Penguins' Bylsma proves he has staying power
Dan Bylsma is writing the story.
Friday marks his unprecedented fourth consecutive year as head coach of the Penguins.
His 285 regular-season games are more than Eddie Johnston coached in either of two stints behind the bench. His 174 victories are eight more than the combined total of his two predecessors, Michel Therrien and Eddie Olczyk. His 28 playoff victories are five ahead of Scotty Bowman's previous franchise record.
The measure of Bylsma's imprint goes beyond achievements, including the ultimate one that came less than four months into his tenure.
On Feb. 15, 2009, Bylsma inherited a defending conference champion that was five points from a playoff spot with 25 games remaining. His professional head coaching experience was all of 54 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
On June 12, 2009, Bylsma was the 14th rookie head coach of a Stanley Cup champion.
Today, he holds a once-unthinkable distinction as a Penguins coach with staying power — and even the face of the franchise knows Bylsma has built something that could last.
“The message is the same from both (general manager) Ray (Shero) and Dan,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “There's a lot to be said for that.”
Bylsma is the 20th man to hold the title of Penguins head coach in the franchise's 46 year-history.
There is a lot more to it than coaching.
Petr Sykora was popular.
A quick wit with a quicker shot, he changed the Penguins' dynamic on and off the ice. After the 2008 Cup Final loss to Detroit, Sykora predicted the Penguins' return to the NHL's grand stage the next year.
He watched Game 1 of the 2009 Final from a seat in the Joe Louis Arena media box.
“Petr was thrilled with the coaching change because Michel was hard on him and down on him,” Shero said. “Dan came in and made the judgment that Petr was going to be in and out of the lineup. It was hard. They were teammates (in Anaheim), and now Dan is his boss, and it was a tough adjustment.”
Sykora always declined to comment on the nature of his relationship with Bylsma during a 2009 postseason that played out just six years after they played for the Mighty Ducks in the 2003 Final.
Bylsma turned to Sykora in a must-win Game 6 of the 2009 Final. Sykora's last game as a Penguin was not marked by a goal but rather a blocked shot that broke his foot.
“Dan sold him on the good of the team,” Shero said. “When was the last time Petr blocked a shot?”
About a year later Bylsma pulled a veteran defenseman into his office and cut to the chase.
“He asked me if I was coachable,” said Jay McKee, who spent the last of his 14-season career with the Penguins.
Blocking shots was McKee's forte, and his proficiency at it was something Shero thought could help the Penguins defend the Cup.
“There was a point where maybe I screened the goalie, and Dan had asked me to box out a little more,” McKee said. “The next game I tried to block one, and the next day Dan had me in his office and said, ‘Are you coachable?'
“That was a tough thing for me to hear.”
Instead of a screaming match, McKee and Bylsma discussed the challenge veteran players face when trying to change their game overnight.
“I played 14 years in the NHL. I had five different coaches. I appreciated his style the most,” McKee said.
James Neal was on the wrong side.
Admittedly jarred by a trade to the Penguins in February 2011, Neal scored only twice in 27 games, including playoffs, after arriving in Pittsburgh.
Bylsma was flummoxed. He pored over video footage of every one of Neal's scoring plays with Dallas before reaching a revelation.
Neal's heavy left-handed shot was generated by a quick release. He could get off that shot from anywhere in the offensive zone. None of his goals, Bylsma said, “were pretty.”
“But James Neal can score a bunch of NHL goals that aren't pretty,” Bylsma said that summer.
Bylsma suggested a move from left to right winger, an off-side position that might make Neal a more dangerous scorer.
Neal posted 40 goals last season as a right winger.
“His passion is the thing you notice,” said Mike Yeo, a former assistant on Bylsma's staff and now head coach with the Minnesota Wild. “He finds little things, things you only see if you spend the time studying film and paying close attention.”
Evgeni Malkin is a screamer.
He had never known a coach to call a player into his office for a “good talk.” Conversations with all of his previous coaches involved scolding and criticism and demands for more from Malkin.
Four years ago, Bylsma had no way of knowing that Malkins — be they Evgeni or his father, Vladimir — best express themselves loudly.
“I know exactly what Dan was thinking: ‘Why is Evgeni upset with me?'” former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “The thing with Evgeni is that is how he shows you respect.”
Bylsma visited Malkin in Moscow in July 2010. They spent two days together. They talked — loudly, and have done so ever since.
“I don't know a coach who would come to Moscow,” Malkin said. “He did for me. He cares. I like that.”
Bill Guerin will lobby.
A two-time Olympian, Guerin is keenly interested in who Team USA will tab to run the bench at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
“He's got to be the guy,” Guerin said of Bylsma. “Look what he did with us that Cup year. His ability to bring a group together, to create a good atmosphere and a good feeling on the team, it's incredible. For a quick tournament like that, guys have to buy in.”
Bylsma is 42. His contract expires after next season.
Only a truncated NHL season will prevent him from extending the franchise record of three consecutive 100-point campaigns, during one of which the Penguins surrendered fewer than 200 goals for the only time.
“He's brought an identity to the way we practice, prepare and play,” Shero said. “On a daily basis, Dan is dealing with our players' professional issues, personal issues, skill development, everything.
“He's a leader for our team, I'm sure of that.”
Promoted to head coach at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Tabbed to replace Michel Therrien as Penguins interim head coach
First NHL win, 5-4 over Montreal at Mellon Arena
Interim tag removed, three-year contract with Penguins finalized
Becomes fourth rookie coach in past 50 years to win the Stanley Cup, a 2-1 victory at Detroit in Game 7 of the Final
Signs three-year extension through the 2013-14 season
Sets Penguins' record with 24 playoff wins, a 3-0 win over Tampa Bay at Consol Energy Center
Becomes first Penguins coach to win Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top bench boss
Becomes fourth fastest coach in NHL history to 150 wins, a 4-2 win over Columbus at Consol Energy Center
Leads Pens to a franchise-best third straight 100-point season, a 5-3 win at Buffalo
Full years as coach
100-point regular seasons
Stanley Cup playoff victories
Postseason road win percentage (14-11)
Goals allowed in 2010-11
Penalty-kill percentage in 2011-12
Regular-season win streaks of 10 or more games
Wins in 2010-11 despite 119 games (combined) missed by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal
Regular-season power-play percentage (199 for 1,093)
* Franchise records