Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has come under increasing fire over the last two years for his ability—or lack thereof—to make in-game adjustments to his team during the playoffs. The Penguins have been knocked out of the postseason in embarrassing fashion three consecutive times, and Bylsma took a lot of heat following the Eastern Conference Final sweep meltdown at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
The perception is that Claude Julien was able to outcoach him in that series. That hasn't faded as the 2013-14 campaign has worn on, and Bylsma's name hit the funny papers once again after he failed to fix Team USA in time for the medal rounds.
Whether it's his refusal to fight for line matchups or not being able to get a finger on Marc-Andre Fleury's pulse when it matters most, Bylsma has earned the reputation as a mediocre in-game coach—a bench boss that has been carried by star players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While that's not entirely fair, the assessment isn't totally off base either. As such, I've come up with a few ideas that Bylsma should consider trying in the postseason. Keep in mind that I'm aware that:
- He's a professional hockey coach.
- I am not.
- He has a Jack Adams Award and a Stanley Cup ring.
- I have neither.
That said, Pittsburgh's issues over the last few early playoff exits have been clear and observable. As such, there are various ways to approach them.
These are just a few ideas to chew on as the postseason opens. They are mostly situational concepts that require patience and timing, but the thought process behind each is simple: a bit more freedom for the top players, and hopefully the addition of a goal or two across a seven-game series.
It's a battle of inches, after all.
A Different Take on Double Shifting
Against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final last season, Zdeno Chara had free reign with Sidney Crosby. He hopped on the ice whenever the Captain did and hustled to the bench once No. 87 was no longer there.
Julien wasn't even tapping "Z" and telling him when to go and when to come off. Chara literally stared at Crosby and waited for him to take to the ice. Talk about situational awareness. Bylsma refused to chase a more favorable matchup for his best player and allowed Boston to steamroll Pittsburgh's biggest difference-makers through four games.
Sometimes coaches can utilize the double shift to get away from a forward-on-forward matchup, but that can be difficult against a defender like Chara who averages nearly 25 minutes a game, according to ESPN.com.
One solution to this could be to use Crosby as the first-line center and then again on the third unit if—sticking with the Bruins example—Chara stayed on the ice after Crosby's initial line change. The point here is to get No. 87 away from the beast for just a shift or two.
Using this tactic would likely draw Chara back out onto the ice, but if Pittsburgh's third line is rolled out on the fly, it could take Boston some time to adjust. It's not quite double shifting and couldn't be done on a consistent basis, but if Bylsma is looking for a two-goal lead or a go-ahead tally, this could work.
Tap Crosby, Tanner Glass and Lee Stempniak 45 seconds after Crosby's line alongside Beau Bennett and Chris Kunitz skates off and see what happens.
Move Away From the Four-Line/Diminishing-Quality Structure
As a (very) general rule, the offensive capability of lines dwindles as you move down the lineup. The first and second lines are typically leaned on for goal scoring, while the third and fourth units consist of more defensive-minded forwards and grinders.
This is an oversimplification of the way NHL teams are operated, but first lines are expected to produce more than fourth lines. This is common knowledge and not too tough to figure out.
When Pittsburgh was at its most successful during the Crosby Era, it had three No. 1 centers to roll out. Jordan Staal is missed by the Penguins, and general manager Ray Shero kicked tires on Ryan Kesler prior to the trade deadline in hopes of resurrecting this system.
There's another way to go about it: Shift either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to the third line and keep Jussi Jokinen as either the first- or second-line center. Not all the time—maybe not even 50 percent of the time. Bylsma flipping his centers around occasionally could create wrinkles for the opposing coach, though.
Can Jokinen carry the load as a No. 1 center? Maybe. Maybe not. If he can hang, it could be worth shuffling up during a road game here and there. Suddenly Pittsburgh has three solid lines that can score and do damage, and the choice needs to be made about who will be covered lightly: Crosby, Malkin or James Neal.
Instead of reacting to the opposing coach, Bylsma puts himself in the driver's seat this way and forces the other guys to make changes instead of the other way around.
Use Crosby On the Penalty Kill
Prior to the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Bylsma spoke to Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and he seemed set on using Crosby as a penalty killer, saying that "It will be based on how many penalty kills we have in the game, but [Crosby] is definitely in the mix of our top six [forward] penalty-killers."
Somewhere along the line, that idea was scrapped, and Crosby continued to see limited ice time while the Penguins were down a man. According to ExtraSkater.com, he has seen an average of 0.5 minutes on the PK per 60 played.
That makes sense, as Bylsma obviously wants to use his best offensive player on the power play and during advantageous five-on-five situations. Using Crosby in an intelligent way during short-handed situations could give the Penguins an upper hand on occasion though.
The idea is to get Crosby (or Malkin, for that matter) away from tough matchups for short periods of time. It'd be up to Bylsma and his coaching staff to notice two things for this to work.
- There needs to be a keen awareness of who the opposing coach has been using against Crosby and/or Malkin.
- Then Bylsma needs to realize that said defensive player spent a majority of a power play out on the ice or that he'll be heading off once the penalty is killed.
If they can get Crosby or Malkin out onto the ice just as the player that has been defending them heads off, it could open the door for a goal. It could also be worth using either player in a situation where there's a faceoff just prior to the penalty against expires.
These are just a few ideas that could help the Penguins come playoff time. None of them are calls to change the overall approach of the team, and none of them shake up Pittsburgh's offensive or defensive philosophy to any degree. Instead, these concepts illustrate the kind of inter-game micromanagement that separates good coaches from great ones.
What do you think Bylsma could do to cause some headaches for the opposing coaches and teams? This list is in no way complete, and it's certainly a fun thing to brainstorm about.
Feel free to contact Franklin Steele via Twitter to agree with everything he's ever said about anything. Or to share chili tips just in time for summer. Follow @FranklinSteele.