Pens coach Bylsma brings stability to bench
Ray Shero is in his sixth season as general manager of the Penguins and has hired one coach, establishing constancy at a position that has proven unstable throughout franchise history.
Dan Bylsma became the 20th man to hold the job when he was hired Feb. 15, 2009, plucked from the club's AHL affiliate after the parent team had plummeted to 10th in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
"We could have gone with an older, more experienced coach, which might have been an easier way to go because we obviously weren't in a good spot at that point," Shero said, referring to his firing of Michel Therrien, the coach he inherited from previous general manager Craig Patrick. "In the end we decided to go with somebody who could grow with the team, and Dan happened to be a very good fit. I wasn't thinking short-term solution."
A short term is what most general managers get from their coaches. There are six new bench bosses this season, and the average tenure is 2.86 years, according to a recent report by Yahoo! Sports. That is actually up from 2.5 years from the 2001-02 season.
Buffalo's Lindy Ruff (13 seasons) and Nashville's Barry Trotz (12) are the longest-tenured NHL coaches, followed by Detroit's Mike Babcock (six) and Anaheim's Randy Carlyle (six). Bylsma is one of seven current coaches to have won the Stanley Cup, but only he, Babcock and Carlyle have done so with their current clubs.
Shero's hope for a sustainable fit has been realized in Bylsma, who leads the Penguins into his third home opener Tuesday night against Florida at Consol Energy Center.
Unlike that magical spring of 2009 when Bylsma guided the Penguins to an 18-3-4 finish and then the Stanley Cup, neither he nor his players are the new kids on the block. Tags such as "young" and "inexperienced" no longer apply.
He began his third full season Thursday amid lofty expectations, even if he downplays the fact the Penguins are the popular pick to win the Cup.
He crafted every aspect of training camp, from controlled-scrimmage faceoffs between superstar centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby to pushing top prospect Joe Morrow in the direction of been-there defenseman Kris Letang, to set a tone.
"You might be expecting to win a Stanley Cup. You might be thinking making the playoffs is a good thing," Bylsma said. "You're trying to provide the necessary tools to do it both through practice and the environment you establish for the team. Those are my broad goals."
Trials for teacher
If he lasts the season, Bylsma will have coached more Penguins games than everyone but Ed Johnston (516), Red Kelly (274) and Therrien (272). Last his current contract, which runs through the 2013-14 season, and he will trail only Johnston, who served two stints as head coach.
Johnston's second run, 276 games from 1993-97, is the longest continuous stretch for any coach in franchise history.
Johnston's 1995-96 squad finished second in the conference. Therrien's 2006-07 club improved by 47 points from the previous year and ended a seven-year playoff drought. "Badger" Bob Johnson steered the Penguins to a first division title in 1991, and two years later Scotty Bowman guided a 119-point team that won a record 17 consecutive contests.
Still, those feats did not earn those coaches the Jack Adams Award annually given to the league's top coach. In fact, before Bylsma won the honor in June, no Penguins coach had been able to declare himself best for one regular season.
Of course, no previous Penguins coach had to do what Bylsma did last season, when each of the franchise's four "foundation" players was lost in some form.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was lost mentally, not winning his second game until mid-November. Injuries prevented two-way center Jordan Staal from playing until New Year's Day. Four days later, captain and NHL scoring leader Crosby was lost for the season with a concussion. About a month after that, Malkin was forced to the surgical room with torn right knee ligaments.
"It was a lot to deal with," left wing Chris Kunitz said. "We went through it, and still, looking back, it's, like, 'Wow, that was a lot.'"
Bylsma prefers the term "manager" more than "coach," but his players think he was more "teacher of the year." Left wing Matt Cooke offered this as an example:
His second suspension last season left Bylsma without a top penalty killer for the final 10 regular-season games and seven playoff contests. Instead of reprimanding Cooke, Bylsma joined him to watch more than 20 hours of video in hope of helping arguably hockey's most controversial player learn a new way to hit -- a legal way.
"He didn't have to do that," Cooke said. "But that's Dan. He's a teacher."
So are Bylsma's assistants, Tony Granato and Todd Reirden, Cooke said.
"Their strength is communication," he said. "All three are committed to put in the time and effort to make us successful. They all want to teach. They all want to be there as outlets for the players. That helps."
Staying the course
Staal said Bylsma and his staff — Granato (third year), Reirden (second) and goalie coach Gilles Meloche (sixth) — proved their collective worth during the second half of last season, when Crosby and Malkin weren't around and AHL regulars became a fixture in the NHL lineup.
"They just didn't change. That's the biggest thing. If you start changing, players start doubting what you're doing," Staal said. "They stayed even-keeled, worked the way they had worked when everybody else was in the lineup, and that kept the players from wavering and kept us confident in what we were doing."
The Penguins went 17-10-4 to end the season. They were 9-2-4, earning 22 of 30 possible points, in games decided by one goal, at one point winning four consecutive shootouts.
There is a theory, one to which Bylsma's players don't subscribe, that the Penguins played differently without Crosby and Malkin.
"We did have to win a different way, but we stuck to the same system, principles, everything," Staal said. "It was great the way we were winning, but the coaches' message didn't change — and I didn't expect it to."
Right wing Tyler Kennedy, who has matured into a top-six winger and is coming off a career-best 21-goal season, isn't sure he would be in this spot if not for Granato.
"He knows how to shrug things off and feel out a player," Kennedy said. "If you're down, he pumps you up, and if you're doing well, he makes sure you work harder.
"He's been around a lot of hockey players as a player and as a coach. He knows how to read people better because of that. The more you know how to read people, the faster you can help them."
A year after hiring Granato in the 2009 offseason, Bylsma faced the task of replacing assistant coach Mike Yeo. He had a candidate in mind but wasn't sure how his idea would fly, even though Shero told Bylsma "to hire who he feels comfortable with."
Reirden, a former defenseman, was Bylsma's assistant in the AHL and the man he trusted most to join him with the Penguins. Conventional wisdom called for a NHL-tested assistant, one with a harder edge than the professorial Bylsma and competitive-but-good-natured Granato.
"I said to Dan, 'You know, there are a number of good candidates here,'" Shero said. "It was pretty obvious he thought Todd was the best choice.
"Todd's been a very good fit with our young defensemen in our entire system, but also he was the right personality for the job and the fit with the head coach. That's what I'm looking for because they report to Dan, and Dan reports to me, but I let him do his thing."
Making it work
Veteran forward Craig Adams, whose name is on the Cup twice, witnessed the benefit of the coaching staff's personality mesh with players when times turned tough last season.
"These guys don't forget what it's like to be a player, the things that are tough or easy," Adams said. "They seem to have a pretty good feel where the team's at, when to push, when to let up. They know the personnel pretty well.
"They didn't panic. There wasn't an end-of-the-world mentality, no freaking out. Everything kind of stayed the same, and that was the big part of our success last year. If anybody doubted our staff, the way these guys reacted won them (clout) in our room."
Shero's experience as an assistant general manager with Ottawa and Nashville suggests he values coaching stability. The Predators, from whom he was hired, have had only Trotz as head coach since joining the league.
Shero signed Therrien, despite the coach not being Shero's hire, to a new three-year contract after the Penguins reached the 2008 Cup Final. Therrien was fired seven months later with the team five points out of a playoff spot with 25 games remaining.
Since Bylsma guided the Penguins to the Cup in 2009, they haven't won more than a playoff round. Ownership continues to spend up to the NHL's salary cap. So if the Penguins are not resulting up to expectations this February, as they weren't in February 2009 ...
"Look, not every coach is the right choice for a certain team," Shero said, "but Dan's certainly proven he's the right guy for this team.
"The way our coaches break down the opposition in terms of preparation for each game -- it's there for the players; they're being taught, 'Here's what we need to do to win to be successful tonight.' That doesn't mean we're going to be, but I know this staff has our players prepared to be successful every night.
"There's not a lot more I can ask."