The Pressure of NHL Playoff Success

In his first year at the helm of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup.

Since that faithful night in Detroit, the Penguins haven’t been to a Stanley Cup since. Due to that perceived slump, Bylsma was fired at the end of last week after a 252-117-32 record over the course of six seasons — with his first season beginning 57 games into the season after the Penguins relieved Michel Therrien of coaching duties.

In sports — and noticeably more in hockey — coaches can get the axe right after a successful run.

The case of Bylsma demonstrates that even if you win a Stanley Cup title, the result most be duplicated — or come close to being duplicated — if you wish to keep your job. In the five years since the Penguins game 7 triumph over the Detroit Red Wings to win their third Stanley Cup title, the Penguins have eliminated in the conference quarterfinals twice, conference semifinals twice, and the conference finals once. In each of those seasons, the Penguins were 2nd or higher in their division.

Regular season success was constant, but postseason success came at a premium. The past two Penguin postseason defeats were to teams that reached the Stanley Cup finals — the Boston Bruins last year, and the New York Rangers this year. For Penguin players and fans, the defeats sting.

The Penguins have the star power in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but injuries and other road blocks that no one accounts for will take a toll on a teams postseason dream. When players have torn ACLs, concussions, and body injuries, the team isn’t the same — performance wise or mentally. However, the coach is tasked to make a magical run to the Stanley Cup finals. In Bylsma’s case, his tragic flaw was taking over a team over half way into the season, and winning a championship; if Bylsma could do this once, then he could do it time and time again.

Dan Bylsma (AxsDenny/Flickr)
Long past are the days of the Penguins Stanley Cup win in 2009 (AxsDenny/Flickr)

In theory, tasking Bylsma to win title after title seems plausible on paper. In reality, it’s easier written than done.

Since the 2000 season, there have been 10 different winners of the Stanley Cup — with the New Jersey Devils, Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks being the only teams to win two titles.

Consistently, there have been shifts in power. Since Bylsma took over, the Blackhawks, Kings, Red Wings, and Bruins have been just a few of the teams that have made runs at the Stanley Cup title. To beat these teams consistently year in and year out is difficult; to beat these teams in the postseason consistently year in and year out, is putting the coach on a fools errand.

Before Bylsma was hired, Therrien was the coach. One year prior to Bylsma taking over, the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup final against the Red Wings, but fell in six games. The following year, Therrien was let go mid-season as the Penguins were five points off playoff contention. The moral learned through Therrien in his Pittsburgh days is that success most be constant — one rough patch in the present will taint an entire successful season of the past.

During the Penguins Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets — and with the series tied at 2-2 –, Bylsma said that game 5 was a “reset game”. Whatever Bylsma told his team to motivate them worked; the Penguins went on to win game 5 and 6, and averted an early postseason exit. The Penguin teams that Bylsma coached were all very talented. The only issue was the postseason success — Bylsma’s postseason record was 43-35 (55.1%).

“Playoff hockey is extremely hard…it’s a battle,” said Bylsma after game 6 of the quarterfinals against the Blue Jackets.

In the past, other teams have faltered in the playoffs, and ultimately cost coaches their jobs. Recent memory points to the foe of the Penguins: the Washington Capitals. Under former coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals had three 100+ point seasons — including the President’s Cup in 2009-2010– in his five years at the helm. However, Boudreau managed to lose three-of-four game 7 playoff games, and was ousted in the quarterfinals twice. Twenty-two games into Boudreau’s fifth year, he was fired. The moral learned in the Boudreau story is this: it doesn’t matter how often you make the playoffs, it’s how well you can do in them.

This year, the New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault is in his first year at the helm. Prior to the Rangers, Vigneault spent seven seasons as the coach of the Vancouver Canucks. In those seven seasons, the Canucks were 1st in the NHL twice, and had five 100+ point seasons. However, the Canucks reached the Stanley Cup finals once, and lost. Last season after being swept by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, Vigneault was fired.

The shelf life for coaches in the NHL is determined by how fast they reach success. For some coaches, fast starts and deep playoff runs earlier in a career levies great expectations for the future. For other coaches, gradual success will keep the job safe, but there will come a point where more-and-more is need for a job to be deemed safe.

Management has a decision to make: if they believe they can get someone better than they already have, then make the move happen. However, if management is gambling for someone better that isn’t a sure lock to come to them, then they face the consequence — and the revolving door of hirings and firings go into the management side.

In the case of Bylsma, teams that are in need of a coach with a track record of success may have hit a small jackpot — Bylsma has the accolades of a Stanley Cup title, Jack Adams award, and being the winningest coach in Penguins history on his resumé. Be weary though, success in the regular season brings the exceptional expectations of the postseason, and the crushing expectations to win a Stanley Cup every single year.


1 thought on “The Pressure of NHL Playoff Success”

  1. I must say i’m pretty shocked Bylsma didn’t get a job in Vancouver, Carolina, or Florida. Word is his asking price was pretty high.

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