I know, I know. The Penguins have only played four games in the 2010-2011 season, and there’s plenty of time for them to straighten things out.
But that doesn't mean I will ignore the problems the team is having. Right now, one of those problems is a debate about the Penguins bench boss.
Since last night’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, many fans have directed whipping-boy status to the man behind the bench: Dan Bylsma.
Some of these fans are saying Bylsma should be fired. Everything he does is magnified right now, from how much ice time he gives certain players to what kind of line combinations he uses and whether he is the great coaching mind Ray Shero made him out to be.
I have thoughts on both sides of the debate, and I would like to get into them and determine how much Bylsma should be held responsible for the Penguins problems.
Like it or not, when a team is not performing up to expectations, the person to be blamed is the coach.
It is said that it is easier to get rid of one coach than fire a whole team. Just ask Michel Therrien, John Tortorella, Ken Hitchcock, John Stevens or another man on the long list of hockey coaches who have been fired at some point in their career.
Problem: The Power Play
One can argue that some things have not improved under Bylsma, and one of them is the Penguins power play.
Last year, the man advantage was ranked 19th in the NHL and converted on just 17.2 percent of their opportunities. Out of the 18 teams ranked ahead of the Penguins, seven did not even make the playoffs.
So far in 2010-2011, the power play has improved statistically, but it is still not quite where it should be with talents such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It is currently ranked 16th in the NHL, and the Penguins have converted on 15 percent of their chances.
Last season, I used to joke with friends that I could leave the room during a Penguins power play, and even with my back away from the TV, I knew what they were doing on it.
The Penguins basically pass the puck repeatedly until they cannot keep it in any longer, and the opponent clears the puck. This leads to the Penguins chasing for it, and the same exhausting process repeats.
I am not going to pretend to be familiar with various coaching systems. I have never played the game of hockey; I just watch it on TV and go to games in person about 30-35 times a year.
However, I can tell that Bylsma should be changing something on the power play, because it is clear their current approach is not working.
Problem: No Sense of Urgency
One of the things I notice about the Penguins is that they often don’t have any sense of urgency in a game until it is too late. They tend to not really put on the pressure until late in the third period when they are already down more than one goal.
Why are they waiting this long to do anything? Shouldn’t Bylsma be drilling it in their heads to get a lead and hold it rather than playing catch up when they aren’t likely to accomplish anything?
Even if the Penguins can’t gain a lead immediately, they should still be pressuring the opposing goalie and defense as much as possible. This means crashing the net and wearing their opponents down with hits. If they don’t show up until the third period, their opponents are not likely to be to sway so easily.
I know you will argue “But the Penguins have come back from behind to win before!”
Yes, they have. But they need to know it will not always work that way.
"It’s not Bylsma’s fault that so many key players are injured!”
No, it’s not.
However, that is no excuse for the Penguins to rack up the losses.
When players get injured, no matter how important they are to a team in any sport, their teammates have to step up and fill the holes the best they can.
The Penguins have done it before.
In 2008, backup goaltender Ty Conklin went on a roll when Marc-Andre Fleury had a high ankle sprain. In that same year, Crosby had the same injury, and Malkin became dominant.
“We have an AHL defense behind us; they can’t replace Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek!”
I have been impressed with Michalek so far, and I am slowly becoming an Orpik fan after not being crazy about him for years.
However, guys like Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy have made the NHL for a reason. They exhibited strong enough play during their time in the AHL and impressed the coaching staff enough in training camp to earn their spots.
Andrew Hutchinson, the Penguins most recent call-up, may be no Michalek, but he is a veteran of 135 NHL games. He should understand the speed of the NHL and the need to keep up more than Lovejoy or Engelland.
It is Bylsma’s responsibility to make sure the replacements are not only playing his system, but also putting up enough production to ensure that the team can get along without key players.
If he does not accomplish that, then he is a failure in that right.
Problem: Assistant Coaches
I watched Todd Reirden coach in the AHL when Bylsma was promoted in 2009, as well as all last year when he was the head coach.
Reirden barely held an AHL team together. I never felt like he pushed the team enough to be their best, and he seemed indifferent after every loss. He always said the team would work on their problems and come back out stronger, but it never seemed to happen.
Not since the days of Glenn Patrick had I seen a coach show so little emotion.
You know you have a bad coach when the athletic trainer shows more anger at the referees and players.
So what does Bylsma do this summer? Instead of trying to find a man with more experience behind a bench, he promotes Reirden, his buddy from college.
I like Bylsma, but I could not back him on that. Reirden should still be coaching in the AHL rather than standing behind Pittsburgh’s bench. Hiring Reirden was not Bylsma's smartest move, and that is all on him.
Much like young players such as Eric Tangradi are still trying to get a feel for the NHL game, Bylsma may still be getting adjusted to life as an NHL coach.
The AHL is not just a development ground for players. Numerous coaches have started their careers there before taking NHL coaching position.
When you look around the league, Bylsma is still one of the most inexperienced coaches around. He may have a Stanley Cup to his name, but he has not been around as long as someone like Mike Babcock or Ron Wilson.
The fact that Bylsma is younger than a lot of coaches isn’t his fault per se, but it can be a problem if he can’t make the tactical moves other coaches can.
The problem only magnifies with an inexperienced assistant behind the bench.
Don’t Blame Bylsma
Non-Problem: The 2009 Stanley Cup
Bylsma is at the point in his coaching career where people still love him for turning the Penguins around and giving the team their first Stanley Cup in 17 years.
No one will ever forget what he did in those first four months he was an NHL head coach, and he is indeed to be credited with it. That kind of thing does not happen every year.
The Penguins also went to the playoffs last year, and although they lost to the Montreal Canadiens, Bylsma will still earn praise for guiding them there.
Playoff appearances and series wins are important measurements of how well a coach is doing, and so far, Bylsma has gained respect in that category.
However, how much longer can he ride the 2009 wave? Will he have to bring the Penguins another title at some point in his tenure to be held up as truly successful?
I know I said this was a problem above, but we can also argue that this isn’t an issue.
Bylsma does not control which players go down with injuries and how long they are out.
Many will say that it is a challenge to work with a depleted lineup, and I am not going to disagree.
But at the same time, he has to work with the hand of cards he has been dealt, even if it includes losing multiple players to injuries at the same time.
Non-Problem: He Isn’t Playing
Bylsma’s playing days are behind him, so it goes without saying that he is not performing for his team.
Bylsma can do a lot to get the Penguins ready for a game. He can hold two-hour practices. He can draw up plays on a whiteboard until he gets carpal tunnel. He can give motivational speeches until his face turns blue.
But one thing he isn’t going to do is get on the ice for the team. They are the ones that should ultimately be held accountable for any poor play.
So, Is Dan Bylsma To Blame?
Right now, I am going to say no.
I don’t blame Bylsma mostly because of the last reason I listed in this debate. He is not the one playing for the Penguins, so why should he be blamed?
Although he is not as straightforward as Therrien was, he still does not hesitate to point out the players shortcomings. That shows he is aware of the problems and is dedicated to fixing them.
The players also seem to like him and respect him, which is important in keeping a good atmosphere in the locker room. If he were not respected, the team would have gone even further downward after he arrived.
Instead, they turned their season around, and many players praised him in the media for being willing to listen to them. They were no longer afraid to make mistakes as they claimed they were under Therrien.
As the Penguins stand at 1-3 on the season, do you feel that Bylsma should get a pass? Or are you starting to wonder if he has what it takes to coach this team for a long period of time?
As always, leave your thoughts below.
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