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Rossi: Time with Penguins taught Bylsma importance of stability

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, 10:03 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma talks to his team during a second-period timeout during a first-round Stanley Cup playoff game Saturday, April 19, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

The annual lunch was later this summer than usual. When it finally occurred last week, one of us was late by half an hour. The other was a Stanley Cup champion, sitting at a back-wall table, looking pretty comfortable for a guy without a job.

Dan Bylsma hasn't gone anywhere. He has no plans to anytime soon. Pittsburgh is home and will be through hockey season, unless an NHL job opens.

Better be the right job, though.

Running the Penguins' bench for 478 games imparted the importance of stability upon Bylsma.

“I think we were a model,” Bylsma said over a wide-ranging conversation that lasted more than four hours. “We had stability, great stability. From ownership, from within the organization, with our players. I was fortunate to coach in a stable situation, and I shared that vision with my general manager — and I coached for a great general manager.

“If Ray Shero wasn't the best GM in hockey, he was definitely top three. That's what I believe.”

Penguins ownership stopped believing in Shero long before CEO David Morehouse fired him May 16. Different sides have different details about what happened and where it went wrong. The only consensus to emerge after the confounding crash is that nobody was happy with where things were.

Shero and Bylsma always figured last season was one of transition. They had a plan for this offseason. It was an intriguing one, but that job belongs to others now.

So much for stability, although new general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston are tasked with taking over a franchise that employs Shero's staff, Bylsma's nucleus of players, and many friends of ownership.

Bylsma had yet to comment publicly about his firing before our lunch. As he had during his tenure as head coach, Bylsma chose words carefully and answered some questions better with a pause or by pursing his lips and slightly nodding.

Counting the playoffs, Bylsma won 295 games and the Cup. He didn't manage that by sharing secrets with the media, even if he was one of the most accommodating coaches in any sport.

Before Bylsma, the last head coach to make offseason time for me consistently was John Durham at Keystone Oaks High School. That was back in the mid-1990s when I played football. Or at least tried.

Bylsma's critics often claimed the media protected him. They also said he was too chummy with players, his practices were too gimmicky and his teams never made adjustments.

Evgeni Malkin didn't always agree with Bylsma but said “he (had) my respect because he works so hard … and he cares about his players like they are people.”

Matt Niskanen said Bylsma's practices were “detailed, had something different every day and fun but never easy.”

Chris Kunitz said Bylsma “made a lot of adjustments, usually from shift-to-shift … and sometimes guys thought we could stick with one thing a little longer.”

All fair, Bylsma said.

A favorite topic during the dancing we did as beat reporter and coach was the concept of “narrative.” In reality, the perceived ones about Bylsma never fit — including the part about him being protected.

Who had time to protect anybody when trying to keep up with Shero doing all that dealing and all those Penguins players going down with injury?

Bylsma knows his teams came up short the last five seasons. He knows a coach pays when that happens, usually before it happens that much.

He knew his gig was gone when the final horn sounded in another Game 7 home loss, his third, in Round 2 of the playoffs in May.

Still, three NHL franchises — Carolina, Vancouver and Florida — approached Bylsma after his firing. A couple more would have, but the Penguins kept him in a lame-duck role for three weeks after Shero was fired.

Bylsma doesn't believe the Penguins tried to prevent him from taking over the rival Washington Capitals.

Neither do I, but most folks in hockey do. Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux have to live with a black mark on their organization, which struggled mightily to land a replacement for Bylsma.

Bylsma's plan for this season is to work more in television. He enjoyed dabbling as an analyst for NHL Network's coverage of the Stanley Cup Final.

Coaching is also in Bylsma's future. He'll serve as an assistant on the Penguins U-15 youth team, his son's squad. (Yeah, he's already anticipating the jokes that will come from him still coaching Penguins players.)

He wants another NHL job, but there is no rush. Bylsma is 43. He can afford to be selective. The Penguins are paying him around $4 million for the next two years, and he never made a habit of spending lavishly, dating to parts of nine seasons as an NHL player.

The team that comes after Bylsma will need to offer stability, and maybe an appreciation for a quote he added to his book of favorite ones after our last lunch.

“If winning is the only measure of success, it will be a very expensive program.”

Coach Durham told me that once, and it always stuck.

It goes now with Bylsma.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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