In sports, it's often assumed that success brings job security. After an embarrassing four-game sweep by the Boston Bruins, that has not been the case for Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. Since Bylsma is a Stanley Cup-winning coach who has a 63% career winning percentage and has led the Pens to five-straight playoff appearances, it seems difficult to believe that his job could be in jeopardy.
However, given the amount of talent that the Pens have, and the amount of money that team owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle have spent to retain that talent, the lack of postseason success for a team that was viewed by many as a potential dynasty casts a large shadow over an otherwise impressive coaching resume.
While there was speculation that Pens’ ownership and management was unhappy with Bylsma’s coaching during the playoffs, Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero announced that Bylsma had been given a two-year extension during his end-of-season press conference.
While some may be surprised even at the thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins could fire a highly successful coach like Bylsma, history has shown that they shouldn't be.
After all, this is the same organization that fired Scotty Bowman, the most winning coach in NHL history who led the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 1992 after the Pens were upset by the New York Islanders in 1993. This is the same organization that fired Craig Patrick, the general manager credited with resurrecting the franchise and guiding them to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
If playoff failure can cost Scotty Bowman his job just one year after winning the President's Trophy as the top team during the regular season and the Stanley Cup, why should Dan Bylsma's job be safe after multiple playoff failures and four years removed from the Stanley Cup?
Since leading the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2009, Bylsma has a record of just 20-21 and has seen his teams eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Lightning and in 2012 by cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers. This year, Bylsma led the Pens to their first Atlantic Division title since 2008 and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.
However, the Pens soon found themselves down three games to none to the Bruins just as they did against the Flyers in the first round last year. While the Pens were able to rally and extend that series before bowing out in six games, this year's team showed no such signs of life and suffered the franchise's first sweep since 1979.
While even Bylsma's supporters admit that the Pens' lack of recent postseason success is concerning, they are quick to point out what they believe are mitigating factors for those failures. In 2010, the Pens ran into a hot goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, who led the Montreal Canadiens to a 5-2 win in Game 7 in the final game ever played at Mellon Arena. In 2011, the undermanned Pens, who were without both Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee), lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While the Pens' first two playoff defeats under Bylsma may be excusable, the last two are not as easily explained away. After dropping the first two games at home to the Flyers in the first-round of the 2012 playoffs, the Pens suffered a complete meltdown in Game 3 in Philadelphia in an 8-4 loss. In a similar fashion, this year's Pens also showed a lack of discipline early in the series against the Bruins and seemed to lose their focus.
While the blame for the Pens' poor performance and lack of poise they've shown recently in the playoffs should be placed primarily on the players, it does beg the question as to whether Bylsma's words are falling on deaf ears.
Since he arrived in Pittsburgh in February of 2009 following the firing of Michel Therrien, Bylsma has been known as a "players coach." In contrast to the disciplinarian style of Therrien who insisted on a conservative style of hockey, Bylsma has emphasized an attacking branding of hockey which relies more on speed and creativity. The players responded well to this change and the Pens won 18 of their last 25 games to qualify for the playoffs and eventually win the Stanley Cup. While loosening the reigns may have been the right move then, given the lack of discipline that this team has shown in recent years during the playoffs, it seems that the reigns may have gotten too loose.
To be clear, Dan Bylsma is a very good coach and could be the head coach of Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
However, simply matching a very good coach with very good players doesn’t always result in championships.
History has shown that teams are only successful when the style of the coach fits the strengths of the team. Before Dan Bylsma was named interim head coach, the Pens were a disciplined team that lacked creativity. Since he assumed the job permanently, the Pens have at times looked like a creative team that lacks discipline, and that was very apparent during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Too often during the series, the Pens tried to be creative when being disciplined would have been the better option. While the desire of talented players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to be creative and force the play is understandable, the unwillingness of Bylsma to make adjustments to balance that creativity with discipline is not. Facing a team that played disciplined hockey and simply waited for the Pens to make mistakes, Bylsma stuck with essentially the same lines and played the same style throughout the series.
Against a Bruins team that seemed to dare the Pens to take the puck to the net, Bylsma decided to move Jarome Iginla, who was acquired to give the Pens the net-front presence they lacked, to the third line thereby making him a non-factor in the series. While it's clear that Bylsma believes in his system, his inability or unwillingness to make adjustments to it has given both Pens management and fans reason to question their belief in him.
The question then must be asked: can Bylsma get the Pens to play with more discipline?
Perhaps the answer to that question can be found in the results of the 2011/2012 NHLPA Players Poll. When 257 NHL players were asked which coach they would most like to play for, Bylsma received the most votes, garnering 21 percent of the vote which was more than the second and third place recipients combined. This marked the second year in a row that Dan Bylsma received that distinction and it reflects the high regard that players, not only on the Pens' roster but around the league, have for him.
In addition, the rush by players to defend Bylsma from criticism following the Eastern Conference Finals shows that, while he may be criticized in hockey circles, that criticism doesn't extend into the locker room. According to Chris Adamski of NHL.com, Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby and other players were quick to defend the coaching staff:
"We were well-prepared, and I think as players we appreciate everything the coaches do to make us ready to play. They give us every opportunity to be successful, they communicate well with everyone. ... Whether they've been here a while or just came here recently, I think everyone will tell you we all feel pretty fortunate to have that group."
While some might dismiss that endorsement as simply the supportive words of a player who has spent more than half of his career with Bylsma, Crosby's sentiments were echoed by defenseman Douglas Murray who arrived via trade just a few months ago.
"They're great. They get us prepared more than you can ask for and have great communication and they show the players respect. That's what you want. You couldn't ask for anything more."
While firing Bylsma and replacing him with a more defensive-minded coach like Dave Tippett could help the Pens return to a more disciplined approach, it could end up driving a wedge between management and players at a time when resigning Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis to long-term contracts are the top priorities.
Facing a summer full of decisions and potential turning points, the last thing the Pittsburgh Penguins need is to search for a coach that will both command the respect and get the results Dan Bylsma does.
That's why I agree with Ray Shero's decision to sign him to a two-year extension. Bylsma is the only man in the 46-year history of the franchise to start and end four consecutive seasons as the team's coach. He has a 201-93-25 career regular-season record and was the fastest coach in NHL history to reach 200 victories.
While Shero could have simply elected not to fire him, signing Bylsma to an extension was vital. Even a full vote of confidence by Penguins' management without an extension would have made Bylsma a lame duck and compromised his authority with his players.
While some will criticize the idea of rewarding playoff failure with a contract extension, no one should be under any illusion this extension will not keep Bylsma safe if the Pens falter again. His predecessor, Michel Therrien, had signed a three-year extension in June of 2008 but was fired just eight months later.
Dan Bylsma and his players know that this extension doesn't get him off the hot seat. Should the Pens find themselves on the outside of the Stanley Cup Finals looking in next year, this extension won't save Bylsma's job. Given the expectations for this team, it’s hard to imagine how anything short of a victory parade will.