Dan Bylsma Looking for Competitive Advantage at R&D Camp

Dan Bylsma wants to coach Team USA in the 2014 Olympics (Tom Turk/THW)

If Jack Adams Awards are any indication, recent winners Dan Bylsma and Dave Tippett are two of the best coaches in the NHL today.

With training camps set to open in less than a month, it might seem odd that both were willing to voluntarily attend the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation Camp in Toronto this week to test out silly new rules with a bunch of kids.

Shouldn’t Bylsma be in a dark room watching film and trying to improve his 25th-ranked powerplay unit instead of making appearances at hockey camps across North America?

On Monday he was serving as a special instructor at a Youth Hockey School in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

Last week he was helping out as an assistant coach at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, NY.

None of these events have anything to do with winning hockey games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, right?

“I don’t have goals for winning,” Bylsma told the Penguins official website in March.  “I like winning. A 50-win season is a benchmark. But my goals are really providing an environment for the guys and the team to really be challenged, to work towards their potential, to have that environment where we can do something special. That’s where my goals lay. I have odd goals. I got invited back to the Mario Lemieux Golf Tournament. That’s a check off every year as a goal.”

With Stanley Cup and Jack Adams Award already checked off the list of goals as well, Bylsma admitted this week that he wants to be a part of Team USA if — and when — they head to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia (hockey will not be played at the upcoming London 2012 Olympics).

“I’d be more than willing to be a part of a staff, but my goal isn’t just to be a part of a staff,” Bylsma admitted confidently to Dan Rosen at NHL.com. “At least, the written goal is not just to be part of the staff.”

Bylsma wants to be the head coach of Team USA and knew that a little face time and familiarity with the players in Lake Placid could go a long way in separating himself from other possibilities.

He also has specific reasons to attend Brendan Shanahan’s Research, Development and Orientation camp this week.

“There are things we want to try to get better at and things we want to investigate, so our summers are spent doing that,” Bylsma told Rosen.

Bylsma graduated from Bowling Green in 1992 with a degree in accounting and has also spent part of this offseason exploring statistics and other ways to get an edge on his competition.  The anything-goes atmosphere of the R&D camp presented him with a perfect opportunity to tinker with new strategies.

“For example, I would have pulled the goalie with three and a half minutes left if I could have gotten him off,” Bylsma said.  “Why? Just to do it. It’s not really standard operating procedure in the National Hockey League, but I’ve done homework on it, I’ve read statistical analysis on pulling the goalie and I would have liked to get him off the ice much earlier than I would have if this were an NHL game.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed the 2011 book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won on the desk behind Penguins Assistant to the GM Tom Fitzgerald (right) because I was reading it at the time.

In the book, authors Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz specifically point out that hockey coaches are risk-averse when it comes to pulling the goalie and often wait too long:

“Pulling the goalie” and putting another potential goal scorer on the ice near the end of a game when your team is losing decidedly improves your chances of scoring a goal and tying the game, but it also increases the risk that with the net empty, an opponent will score first and put the game out of reach.  We found that NHL teams pull their goalies too late (on average with only 1:08 left in the game when down by one goal and with 1:30 left when down by two goals).  By our calculations, pulling the goalie one minute or even two minutes earlier would increase the chances of tying the game from 11.6 percent to 17.6 percent.  Over the course of a season that would mean almost an extra win per year.”

It’s safe to assume Bylsma picked up a copy of the book as well and knew he could test the theory in a game situation at the camp without media ridicule.  In the big picture, coaches should be climbing over each other to join Shanahan’s R&D sessions for this exact reason.

When the small handful of rule changes go into effect in future seasons, who will be best-prepared to take advantage of the tweaks? A coach who reads a one-paragraph description of the new rule, or Dan Bylsma who was part of the process, getting feedback from players and already testing new strategies.

The lifespan of new tactics in the NHL today is on par with that of tech gadgets.  If a head coach has success with a new strategy, they’ll be lucky if another coach isn’t practicing the same gameplan two weeks later.

But constant innovation is the reason Apple leads the tech world while their competition merely imitates.  The same rationale applies to coaching strategies.

In April we looked at how Bylsma was using a small tweak in the icing rule to exploit slow opponents.  The strategy led to the Penguins’ regular season domination of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but by the time the two teams met in the first round of the playoffs the Lightning and coach Guy Boucher had adjusted.

The Penguins open the regular season in Vancouver on October 6.  When you’re watching the game on Versus, don’t be shocked (like the announcers will be) when Bylsma’s team is down 3-2 and Marc-Andre Fleury comes storming out of the net with over two minutes to go in the game.

Don’t be shocked when that becomes the new norm in the NHL.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Richard Pollock

    Great read, as always.

  • http://burningantsblog.com/slewfooters James Conley

    Killer read.