Dan Bylsma: The First Round Pick

Dan Bylsma has the Crosby-less Penguins in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race (Tom Turk/THW)

Dan Bylsma signed a two-year extension on Wednesday (Tom Turk/THW)

Dan Bylsma’s son, Bryan, listens to the radio in Pittsburgh.

He’s heard the criticism from hosts and the anger from callers who want Dan Bylsma to be held accountable for the Penguins abrupt exit in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“Did I go home and have my son ask me the question if I was going to be back as coach of the Penguins?” said Bylsma. “He did.”

Fortunately for Bylsma, he could tell his son on Wednesday that the concern was no longer necessary.  Penguins General Manager Ray Shero announced that he had signed Bylsma to a two-year contract extension to keep him with the team through the 2015-16 season.

“The confidence of me being the coach going forward from [Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle] as owners and Ray Shero as the GM was very important to our staff and for me,” Bylsma said.

Shero knows the public sentiment was that Bylsma needed to go.  Expectations were ‘Cup or bust’ in Pittsburgh and the Penguins were swept by Boston in such an unspectacular fashion.

“It’s easy to change,” Shero said, “and I would change.  I had to do it before.”

But as we said on Monday, change for the sake of change doesn’t increase the odds of winning a Stanley Cup.

“Like with any player,” Shero explained, “whether it was James Neal when he first came, Paul Martin last year, Matt Cooke…you try to work with people to make them better.”

There’s something to be said for not taking the easy way out and paying, trading, or firing someone to make your problems go away.  That shouldn’t be mistaken for stubbornness or lack of accountability.

Dan Bylsma - Ray SheroShero said he went to his players who had played in other organizations and asked where Bylsma stood amongst his peers before making the recommendation to ownership to extend Bylsma.

“My father was a really good coach,” Shero said.  “I’m not.  I think I’m a decent GM, but in terms of the coaching and the X’s and O’s, I can’t sit there with our coaches and talk to them about it.”

A few years ago, I came across a book written by Shero’s father, Fred, called Shero: The Man Behind the System.  The book was written in 1975 and detailed how Fred Shero approached the challenges of life and hockey:

“But unlike parents, a coach’s stay with a team is not quite permanent. Wise parents have the opportunity to become wiser as they learn the art and science of parenthood. Fortunately for them, time is on their side. Often a second and third chance is given to them to try out their modified ideas of raising a son or daughter.

But the coach of a professional team does not have time on his side. Above all, he suffers from the handicap that does not afflict parents. By the time a coach becomes wise enough to realize his mistakes and devise new methods to correct them, he is out on the street looking for a job.”

In a sense, a head coach like Bylsma is similar to a first round pick or highly-touted prospect.

Maybe they’ve done great things — even on the grandest of stages — but the inconsistency is hard to tolerate.  Youth and inexperience shines through with the first round draft pick and sometimes you just crave the reliability of a 15-year veteran.

The Penguins could have fired Bylsma and snatched Lindy Ruff from the unemployment line.  He’d bring stability and a heck of a lot of experience.  He might even be able to get the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup Final.

But why did the Penguins go with Bylsma in the first place after Michel Therrien was let go in 2009?  There were external options available, yet Shero went with Bylsma because he wanted to give his young and promising coach an opportunity.

“I really believe we have a great head coach in Dan Bylsma,” Shero said.  “I believe he’s the coach to lead us forward. I have faith in his ability as a coach to get better as he moves forward and I think that’s the sign of a great coach.”

A friend once told me, “Good coaches are a dime a dozen.  But great coaches are worth cultivating.”

Pittsburgh could have thrown a sack of money at Dave Tippett and convinced him to come to Pittsburgh on July 1 after his contract expires with the Phoenix Coyotes.  But didn’t this year’s trade deadline show that throwing money or assets at a problem doesn’t necessarily leave a team any better off?

Was Iginla the right move? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Was Iginla the right move? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

‘Dobber’ at DobberHockey said the Penguins were a chemistry experiment gone awry and I think he’s onto something.  They added so many bodies so late in the season that the team wasn’t able to form the bonds necessary to drive great talent to great results.

No team would pass up the opportunity to add Jarome Iginla, but was he really the right acquisition?  He didn’t come to Pittsburgh free of charge.

With all of the injuries and trades, did the Penguins have enough time to gel as a team?

After only a few weeks in Pittsburgh, was Iginla comfortable enough stepping up in the locker room and saying what needed to be said in the face of adversity?

We can ask these questions with the benefit of hindsight.

We might ask questions of Bylsma’s extension a year from now.

“I look back on the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins and it’s not been too kind to coaches,” Shero said.  “Not that it’s good or bad, it’s just the way it is.  It doesn’t reflect my way or what my vision is for the team.”

“I want to reward [Bylsma] with an extension that shows him, ‘Hey, he’s my coach, and I believe in him.’ I think that’s the way I want to run this business.  I want to stick to that if I believe in something.”

Shero went on to explain that he always looks to the Detroit Red Wings and how they’ve handled coach Mike Babcock over the years.

“They have a belief in what they do,” Shero said.  “They probably have the best General Manager in the league in Kenny Holland, they have great players, and they have a coach they believe in with Mike Babcock. They don’t get [to the Stanley Cup] every year, but Kenny Holland and their ownership group believe in what they’re doing.”

On Thursday, Red Wings Senior Vice President Jimmy Devellano was asked for his thoughts on the Bylsma situation and made an interesting comparison.

“I can go back to 1979 on Long Island when [GM] Bill Torrey was under enormous pressure after two playoff performances to fire [coach] Al Arbour,” Devellano said.

The Islanders finished with the best record in the NHL in 1979, but were bounced in the third round of the playoffs by Fred Shero’s New York Rangers.

“Bill Torrey went deaf and extended Al Arbour’s contract despite the media [criticism],” said Devellano, “and the rest is history.”

“They went on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups.”

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Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com
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Mike Colligan

Mike Colligan

Managing Editor
Mike Colligan is an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney and The Hockey Writers. Email: MJColligan@gmail.com
Mike Colligan

5 Comments

  1. (My father was a really good coach,” Shero said. “I’m not. I think I’m a decent GM, but in terms of the coaching and the X’s and O’s, I can’t sit there with our coaches and talk to them about it.)

    IF GM SHERO DON’T KNOW COACHING, HOW ON GODS GREEN EARTH , CAN HE SAY BYLSMA IS HIS COACH, HE’S ADMITTING HE KNOWS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THE 3 COACHES BEHIND THE BENCH, AND WHAT THEIR JOB SHOULD/OR SHOULD NOT BE,!!!
    Its fairly obvious to the PENGUIN FANS BYLSMA is not the COACH they would like to see to lead that team to the Stanley Cup, ITS ALSO very obvious he has NO respect from the players as well. HE’S afraid to say anything to his team of stars, the only one’s he’ll yell at are the lackys, Tyler Kennedy, and Depres…. I’ll give Bylsma 2 months in the 2013/2014 Regular season, then its TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.

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  3. I wouldn’t call this a “puff piece,” Richard. I call it a much-needed different perspective from the other columns/posts we’ve seen pleading for Bylsma to get the ax. Like Mike said, consistency shouldn’t always be linked with stubbornness or lack of accountability. The Penguins’ patience may or may not pay off, but they are taking a different approach. At the least, I’d applaud them for swimming against the current. We’ll see how it goes.

    • Though I agree that people (including me) need a different perspective, which this article offers somewhat well, I still don’t hold a different opinion from what I did before.

      It’s not a confusion of consistency with stubbornness. It’s the other way around or both with Bylsma. His system gets exploited; he refuses to adjust. The most frequent (and most reasonable) retort to that is that his players didn’t play how he told them to play.

      Let me type that again: HIS players did NOT play how HE TOLD THEM to play.

      Is that not the definition of a coach who has no (or at least not enough) influence on his players? Is that not why the Rangers fired a good coach in John Tortorella (not that it was the right move)? It doesn’t matter whether it’s from too much rigidity, as with Therrien (though they steadily improved each year), or from inmates running the asylum, which I think (and it is possible I’m wrong) has been the case for at least two years with this team.

      The problem stems from stubbornly sticking to his system or his players not heeding him; I just can’t bring myself to believe neither is the case. I think in either case, the coach should be held accountable for that, especially when (barely) arguably the most talented group of young players in the world is unarguably not maturing mentally, though it may be physically.

      Based on this, and from what I have seen and heard on and off the ice, leadership is the big problem. The head coach MUST be a strong leader, which means he MUST be stern with his players at least occasionally. This doesn’t mean yelling or cursing them out like Boudreau. Just be adamant and reduce playing time as punishment instead. You can still be gentle and fair in saying to anyone, “Hey, you haven’t been showing us what we’ve asked of you, so you’re going to lose playing time.”

      This is where I think Bylsma fails hardest of all. He seems incapable of lighting a fire under his players to heed his word, though his adjustments still don’t convince me as enough.

  4. these puff pieces on bylsma are more reactionary than saying he should be fired. i’d like to see the bylsma apologists craft an argument that truly accounts for the magnitude and severity of their flame-outs the last two seasons. quoting records and stats does not acknowledge the circumstance in which a team lost an individual series.

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