Who, or what, is to blame?
Sure, many in the mainstream Pittsburgh hockey/sports media are coming up with their own solutions to have fixed the Penguins in their Eastern Conference Final matchup with the Boston Bruins. But there are two things to keep in mind: 1) have fixed=past tense; and 2) they’re media, not coaches.
So I’ll ask again: Who, or what, is to blame?
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy all had as many points in this series as I did: ZERO. Now I could have stopped at just Crosby and Malkin, the two best players in the world, and that alone should tell you who won the series. But factoring all of those other names, and the fact that as a team the Pens scored only two goals, TWO in four games speaks volumes of the monumental collapse that we witnessed last week.
In fact, the only player who is absolved of virtually any blame, and the one man who received no accolades for his stellar play yesterday afternoon by Dan Bylsma (it was the annual “breakup day” that all teams go through when their season ends), is Tomas Vokoun. The man who was brought in to spell Marc Andre Fleury during the regular season (which he did so admirably) and provide insurance during the playoffs in case of another meltdown reminiscent of the one against the Flyers in 2012 (which happened); just two days after seeing his season end after giving everything he had (and then some for guys like Letang who were comfortable to just throw the puck anywhere), was essentially told through the media that he would be the backup once again next season. Basically, Dan Bylsma just spit in Vokoun’s face.
Vokoun allowed 9 goals in nearly 12 periods of hockey (although he was pulled in Game 2 with just under five minutes remaining, he played all 35 minutes of overtime in Game 3, bringing his minutes played total to nearly that of four full games) for a GAA (goals against average) of 2.34, and save percentage of nearly 93% (.928). Those numbers are certainly worth praise, and had the Penguins been able to score, should have carried them to a birth in the Stanley Cup Final.
So again, the Penguins couldn’t score. Why? I was at Consol Energy Center for Games 1 and 2, and I watched every second of Games 3 and 4 intently. I can assure that their offensive slump was not a result of lack of effort or passion. In fact, in Game One, the Penguins carried the play for the first 35 minutes. Even at the beginning of Game Four they had the better of the chances.
It begs these questions:
- Was it the players failing to execute Dan Bylsma’s system properly? Or…
- Did Boston simply have a defensive scheme that Bylsma’s system could not overcome?
The one glaring issue that faced the Penguins during 95% of this postseason, was their inability to maintain puck possession in the offensive zone, create a cycle, and get to a solid forecheck. Too often all you saw was an offensive zone entry, perhaps a shot or a scoring opportunity, and then the puck was right back out again.
I dare say that to answer the above two questions, you look at the Pens effort in Games 1, 3 and 4 (Game Two they laid an egg) and you have to conclude that Boston played a tremendous defensive system. The players (especially Vokoun) gave a solid effort. But the system (which hasn’t produced more than two series victories since 2009) isn’t fool proof.
That being said, it leads is right into…
Listen, I like Dan Bylsma. I think he is a tremendous human being. He is always accommodating with the media, he loves the city of Pittsburgh, and he is awesome within the Pittsburgh community. Kevin Gorman had a great article about Bylsma back at the end of May, and you can read it here.
And Bylsma is a good coach. But I said good, not great. He has allowed a bit of arrogance to seep in to his coaching of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
By not making a single adjustment to his system, and by not having a plan B in case his system failed, shows just how arrogant Bylsma became in his players and his system.
What the lack of adjustments tells me is that he feels when his players execute the system, to the best of their abilities, it is unstoppable. How arrogant is that?
Don’t get me wrong, confidence in your players is necessary. But the aforementioned way of thinking is just ludicrous.
Poor Roster Management
To make things worse for Bylsma, his handling of this roster was, at times, atrocious.
First let’s examine Jarome Iginla:
Bylsma put Iginla at left wing, a position that he hadn’t played at all in his professional career. Byslma justified it by saying that Iginla at left wing was he was most valuable to this Penguins’ team. Clearly, he wasn’t valuable at all. In fact, Iggy couldn’t even crack the top power play unit. More on that in a minute.
What Bylsma did with Jarome Iginla is a huge injustice to a sure-fire Hall of Famer. To further exacerbate his mishandling of the roster, he waited until Game Five against the Islanders to insert Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale into a lineup that clearly lacked speed and intensity versus a team overflowing with both. And to leave Marc Andre Fleury in the net for the third period of Game Four against the Isles cost the Penguins that game as well.
As for how Bylsma used Iginla on the power play, well… He didn’t. He stuck with same top unit of Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Kris Letang. Letang was awful in these playoffs, and it may be most evident by his work on the power play. Not replacing Letang with Paul Martin (who was said to be playing with a significant injury) and either Kunitz, Neal, or Malkin with Iginla (a right-handed shot from the left point for one-timers is never a bad idea) was just plain silly. It even further shows an example of Bylsma’s arrogance.
The Final Verdict
Bylsma’s coaching is what doomed this team. It’s what has doomed this team in the playoffs each of the past four seasons. Since winning The Cup in 2009 with tweaks to Michel Therrien’s system, Dan Bylsma’s system simply hasn’t produced in the playoffs. It’s a great system for regular season hockey, as evidenced by the Penguins’ success during that time. But playoff hockey is a much different beast. Defense is what will you The Stanley Cup in the postseason, not a track meet.
It’s time for Dan Bylsma to move on. Or, in a best-case scenario for “Disco,” sweeping changes to his system are needed if he wants to keep his job.
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