Oh, to be Dan Bylsma. After capturing a Stanley Cup championship only four months after taking over behind the Pittsburgh bench, he went on to win the Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s most outstanding coach in 2011. At only 42, he has become one of the most successful coaches in the game today. He hasn’t done it alone, though. No, Bylsma is surrounded by some of the brightest stars in the game, both on and off the ice.
Think about it – Bylsma hit the jackpot when General Manager Ray Shero brought him up to the show. Coaching arguably the two greatest players in the world, Disco Dan has a luxury most coaches can only dream of. Anytime you can throw the face of the game, Sidney Crosby, on the ice and then follow that up with Evgeni Malkin – last year’s leading scorer and Hart Trophy winner, you have a little bit of an advantage, to say the least. Throw in 40-goal scorer James Neal, potential Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang and Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and you have quite an advantage over most of your peers. But perhaps Bylsma’s greatest benefit comes from those who employ him. Having an ownership group committed to winning whatever the cost and possibly the game’s best G.M. in his corner has constantly provided Bylsma with the tools he needs to perennially compete for the most coveted trophy in sports.
Just look at some of the name’s Shero has brought in to bolster the Pens’ line-up: Marian Hossa, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Niskanen and Tomas Vokoun, just to name a few. Sure, there have been some duds (see Alex Kovalev and Jordan Leopold) but, for the most part, Shero has an excellent track record in the trade department, particularly at the trade deadline. This year has been no exception as the Penguins have brought in the likes of Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray and Jerome Iginla without giving up so much as a single roster player in the process. Now what the impact these moves will have on the team’s long-term future is the subject for another discussion but, for present purposes, it sets Bylsma up to have (on paper) as good a chance as any coach in the league to lead his team to a title this spring.
While Shero’s additions certainly make the Penguins a stronger team on paper, the fact remains that the team is currently riding a 14 game winning streak, longest in the NHL this season. It will therefore be interesting to see how the additions impact the squad’s line-up and chemistry. Where, for example, will Iginla end up playing? He and Crosby played together in the 2010 Olympics but is Bylsma willing to break up arguably the best line in hockey this year to reunite the pair? If so, who does he move? Kunitz? Dupuis? Kunitz flanked Malkin last year as the two flourished but Chris very well may set a career high for goals, assists and points in a shortened season skating alongside Crosby. Is that success something Bylsma is willing to tamper with? There is always the option to skate “Iggy” with Malkin and James Neal but Jarome’s North-South, crashing-style seems more likely to mesh with Sid’s game than the East-West style that “Geno” often plays.
In addition to the “problem” Bylsma has with his forward lines, he also faces a bit of a log jam on the blue line. The acquisition of Murray toughens up the back end and makes the Penguins tougher to play against. Indeed, Murray is a bruising defenseman who hits, blocks shots and can kill penalties. He addresses a huge need the Penguins had prior to his arrival. That being said, it will be interesting to see who Bylsma dresses once everyone is healthy. Murray will likely be a candidate to play alongside Kris Letang upon his return. Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen will likely fill the 3-5 roles. But who will skate as the sixth defenseman? Deryk Engelland? Mark Eaton? Simon Depres? Clearly, Disco Dan will have another decision on his hands.
While these problems are the result of tremendous depth that all coaches would love to possess, Bylsma will have to resolve them in time to make sure the team is firing on all cylinders come playoff time.
While the trade deadline is still days away, Shero has basically done his job. He has put Dan in position to win and to win now. From here on out, it’s up to Bylsma and the team. They have 13 games before it really counts to develop and maintain chemistry with the new additions. What they don’t have are excuses. In the years since bringing the Cup back to Pittsburgh in 2009, the Pens have dealt with injuries to key players and have enjoyed almost no playoff success (they have lost their last three playoff series). Now, they enter the home stretch of a lockout-shortened season relatively healthy and primed for another long playoff run. They have all the pieces to do it; on paper, they are the team to beat. It’s up to Bylsma to make sure his club is ready to live up to its potential.
Simply put, it will be a balancing act between maintaining the chemistry the team has already developed and implementing the acquisitions that Shero has bolstered the line-up with. For Bylsma, it’s a nice problem to be facing this time of year. While there is plenty of pressure to achieve the ultimate goal of bringing home the Cup, Bylsma wouldn’t have it any other way.