He had 25 games to propel an inherited version of the Pittsburgh Penguins into the bounty of postseason play. Whether it was done gracefully, with aesthetics or through rugged performances, general manager Ray Shero vested his confidence in a second-year coach of whom most of the hockey world would be forgiven for having no knowledge.
Dan Bylsma, a freshman by terms of his coaching experience, was given a chance that seemed to follow a common thread in a season replete with managerial choices: the election of an AHL affiliate bench-boss to the parent organization.
Bylsma joined Cory Clouston, the recently-signed coach of the Ottawa Senators, as an extension of what has been dubbed the Boudreau Effect, which was initiated when Bruce Boudreau overtook the coaching post in Washington last season to lead the team to a Southeast division title while earning the Jack Adams award in the process.
Although Clouston wasn’t able to experience a pivot of dramatic proportions, Byslma did by winning 18 of those 25 games, of which Shero certainly coveted.
Pat Quinn, John Tortorella, and Peter Laviolette, among other worthy candidates, were all feasible individuals, full and ready to accept an invitation, but the Penguins opted to maintain the NHL’s inclination to reward AHL coaches.
The opportunity bestowed upon Byslma was carried out with the same intentions as a coach display when evaluating a burgeoning rookie at training camp—the delivery of a chance to prove one’s accountability.
Michel Therrien, whom many accredit for the Penguins’ rise as a legitimate contender from the jaws of insolvency, was not fired for his inability to contain his team; rather, it was with the confidence that his successor could provide players with a new set of eyes to see the ice differently.
“It wasn’t so much the outcome,” said Shero after pulling the trigger on Therrien, “it was how the game was played.”
Although Therrien was liable for publicly stating his distress with the team and their on-ice woes—using the pulpit at post-game press conferences to address the team through the tube and not within the confines of the locker room—he was lauded at junctures for his vision, which ultimately bolstered the team to two 100-point campaigns.
Sometimes a coach outstays his welcome, and clearly Therrien’s pedantic approach to the game stifled the creativity and listening skills of the Penguins.
For some teams, adversity tests the mettle of the 23-man roster, often wearing an organization while simultaneously preparing them for a more comfortable fit when it arrived at postseason production, like a shoe does when it moulds into the shape of one’s foot. For the Penguins, however, it altered fate.
If it weren’t for the Penguins’ turbulent and trying period in February that saw them dither in and out of the playoff picture with a record of 27-25-5, in this particular case, a Stanley Cup victory would not have been realized.
It is appropriate, then, to commend a player like Maxime Talbot for registering eight goals in a postseason decided on his stick or Malkin’s 36-point effort that sparked memories of Wayne Gretzky’s 40 playoff points in 1993. Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal enjoyed quite a bit of the attention from the media, too, and they worked to etch their names on the Cup.
Some believe the team that comprised of this Cup-winning Penguins squad—the hard-nosed and unabashed play of defenseman Rob Scuderi in Game Six of the Finals, or Marc-Andre Fleury and his defence of each game with a spate of pivotal stops—had and attained the potential destination of such organizations like the Detroit Red Wings of the past, using depth and secondary scoring to compensate and even augment a dangerous attack.
But Byslma let the boys play without any visible harnesses. The players loved him. There was no palpable antagonism felt in the dressing room. Just a mutual understanding of what it means to realize a chance and optimize it.
“At the time, when they made the switch, things weren't going so well for us. Our confidence wasn't there even though we had a good set of young, core players, and it just wasn't there," Scuderi said. "Sometimes, when you bring in a different philosophy, it just helps. And I thought it was pretty good from Day One."
The fact that Byslma is the 14th rookie coach to win a Stanley Cup is not indicative of what was accomplished; that he is only the second individual to win with half a season out of the picture— as Al MacNeil did with the Montreal Canadiens in 1971—is the candid testimony.
Rarely is the coach of an AHL team at one point of the year the recipient of the Cup merely months afterward. But the formula was ripe for testing, as Shero evidently believed in.
"Did we have enough time to do it? That was the question mark in my brain. I didn't really try to think about that too much," Bylsma said. "It was just about getting to play certain ways and winning the games.”
It took 25 games for the Boudreau Effect to be fully acknowledged once again. It then required an additional 24 games to realize the manifestation of that effect at its ultimate peak.
It was a term coined to befit Boudreau’s ascent in Washington, but it is his interdivisional rival who enhanced the poignancy of the proposition.
And it was born from a possibility that could have been sweet or sour.