After the Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, losing to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was popular opinion that head coach Dan Bylsma could lose his job, or at least was on the hot seat.
When it was time for general manager Ray Shero’s end-of-season press conference on Wednesday morning, several fans thought he’d announce that Bylsma was on his way out.
Instead, Shero proudly stated that Bylsma was given a two-year contract extension, as were assistant coaches Todd Reirden and Tony Granato. Shero feels that Bylsma is the best fit for this team, as he said to the media, via Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Shero on the importance of Bylsma extensions: "He's my coach and I believe in him."— Seth Rorabaugh (@emptynetters) June 12, 2013
The reaction was mixed among the Penguins community. Some fans were going to stand behind the team no matter what, while others criticized Shero’s decision.
The main criticism of keeping Bylsma was Pittsburgh’s recent playoff history. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pens have fallen in the first or second round in three of the last four postseasons. The losses included dropping a 3-1 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, a meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers last year and now this season’s collapse against the Bruins.
Ultimately, Shero stood behind Bylsma due to his success in the regular season. In a lockout-shortened year, the Pens won 15 games in a row on their way to winning the Eastern Conference. Over each of the last three years prior, they finished as the fourth seed.
Pittsburgh has also been home to star players such as former NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, while veterans who built their careers elsewhere (Bill Guerin and Jarome Iginla, to name two) were eager to waive no-trade clauses to come to Pittsburgh or take pay cuts to remain with the team after Shero acquired them. In fact, Guerin opted to retire as a Penguin.
Players wanted to come to the Steel City, and Bylsma was part of the reason why.
Coach is unbelievable. Everyone is always in the right places at the right time.
You need the bounces -- you need everything -- to go your way to win, and we just didn't get them. It definitely doesn't feel like we went out in four games like that. It's hard to say why right now, but looking back on it and going over it, the coaches have definitely done the right things.
Bylsma has been living off the legacy of his Stanley Cup run with Pittsburgh in 2009. He was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL after Michel Therrien was fired in February of that season. At the time, the Penguins were in 10th in the conference after going to the finals the year before and losing to the Detroit Red Wings.
Under Bylsma, they were invigorated and went on a run to earn the fourth place in the East. They continued their strong play in the playoffs and earned the Stanley Cup in a rematch against the Wings.
However, although Bylsma reminds everyone that he is capable of coaching a team to a championship, that Cup run was four years ago.
He needs to face the team’s current situation and work with the players Shero has brought in.
Sidney Crosby, the team’s captain, will be 26 this August and in his prime. He is also due for a new contract and will be trying to stay healthy for a full season this coming fall.
Malkin will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2013-14 season, as will Letang. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who is under contract through 2015, has floundered in recent playoff series, being pulled for veterans such as Brent Johnson and Tomas Vokoun.
The 2013-14 campaign could very well be one of Bylsma’s last chances to guide this team to a Stanley Cup. To do this, he will need to make adjustments against quality teams such as the Bruins, whether he breaks up underperforming lines or gives playing time to a promising younger player such as defenseman Simon Despres.
Despres had seven points and a plus-nine during the regular season while registering about 15 minutes of ice time. However, he did not get any playing time during the postseason.
If Bylsma fails and the team leans too much on its regular-season success, it will be taking after its arch-rival, the Washington Capitals. Both of those clubs have high Cup expectations, but year after year, they fail to measure up.
That is not the model the Penguins want to emulate with such a talented roster.
A contract extension, while widely criticized, doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. After all, Therrien was fired four years earlier despite the fact that he got a contract extension after the 2008 playoffs. Therefore, one shouldn’t assume that Bylsma is completely safe from being dismissed.
That said, the time is now for the Penguins. There is no excuse for such a stacked roster to give in to cheap shots during the playoffs or not have what it takes to dispatch an opponent when it has a dominant lead in a series.
Bylsma has to be willing to commit to the present, or he could very well find himself in the same place as Therrien back in 2009.