Newly appointed New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero is remaining tightlipped about his coaching search. There is a long list of candidates available. Shero’s former Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is among them. Pittsburgh dismissed Bylsma after the 2014 postseason and he did not coach this past year. Considering the success that the men had together, it is not a far reach to think that Shero would want to have a conversation with the former Pittsburgh coach. There is a level of comfort and familiarity for both men. Nevertheless, Shero has a fresh start in New Jersey. Hiring a new head coach will be his first big move as a member of the organization. It will set a tone and hiring Bylsma could be setting the wrong one.
When Bylsma took over in relief of Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh the team had prior success. After struggling the first half of the season, the Penguins rebounded and hoisted the Stanley Cup later that year. It is not easy for a coach to lead his team to a Cup victory, especially a coach hired midseason. He definitely had an impact on the Penguins and does deserve credit for their turnaround. But Bylsma won with Therrien’s team. He inherited a balanced roster and a team that had just lost in the Stanley Cup Finals the year before. It takes multiple seasons for a coach’s vision as well as system to be established, and for the team to be solely his. As the years went by in Pittsburgh, the Penguins did not improve. Rather the team began to unravel and they were never able to take the next step regardless of the talent that was brought in.
Pittsburgh had great regular seasons and always made the playoffs with Bylsma. But they never made it back to the Finals. On paper, the Penguins looked like automatic winners every season and were regularly picked as the favorite. Instead, the postseason turned into a redundant narrative of a team that was severely undisciplined. It is the coach’s job to keep his players composed and wrangle them back in when things go astray. However, even with new head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins are still having this problem, which may relieve some of Bylsma’s responsibility. With Bylsma behind the bench, Pittsburgh also at times looked unprepared for big games. This was particularly true during the postseason against the team’s biggest rivals. New Jersey faced similar criticisms this season, predominantly a lack of consistency.
When he was named as the head coach for Team USA in Sochi, Bylsma had an opportunity to overcome some of these criticisms. Team USA had a very different group of players with a variety of experience levels. There were high expectations for the team and the team had a promising start. Furthermore, during the bronze medal game against Finland it was the same story that Bylsma faced in Pittsburgh. Team USA looked unprepared, flat, and ended up leaving Sochi without a medal. Fans cannot only blame the coach for a team not performing up to par. But if there is a common link between two repetitive situations, in this case Bylsma, it does begin to look suspect.
New Jersey’s Style
To state the obvious, the Devils are not the Penguins. The teams do not resemble each other in any way nor do their current situations. If Bylsma is named the Devils coach, he is walking into different circumstances. While New Jersey does not need a complete rebuild, the Devils do need to add more scorers and speed, while grooming a young group of defensemen. New Jersey’s identity is a defense first mentality. Even though the Penguins did have several skilled defensemen, watching them play was sometimes hard. But Pittsburgh could win high scoring games, which hid some of the ugly defensive play. It is questionable whether Bylsma is the right coach to help develop a young defensive core. If he does get the job, former Devils co-coach and defensive assistant, Scott Stevens, should remain on the staff. Stevens did a fantastic job developing defenseman Adam Larsson last season and he knows the young talent. There would be no introductory period.
Bylsma was always considered a popular head coach in Pittsburgh and well liked by most of his players. If the Devils did hire him it would not be a disaster. He could bring an offensive spark to New Jersey. The Penguins played a creative offensive game in comparison to the structured approach in New Jersey. However, Pittsburgh had more depth than New Jersey with two strong top lines and could rely on certain players’ individual skills. A team like the Buffalo Sabres would be more suited to playing Bylsma’s style, especially after trading for Evander Kane last season and under the assumption that Buffalo drafts standout Jack Eichel. Bylsma would be better off going to a team that is ready now like Pittsburgh was in 2009.
If speculation is correct, Bylsma will be a head coach again next season. He does deserve another chance and may help another team. But there are better fits for the New Jersey vacancy. Undoubtedly, Shero has fond memories of working with him. However, memories symbolize the past and that is where their working relationship should stay for now.