Dan Bylsma: Why He'll Be Coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Long Term
In three seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Bylsma has led the team to its third Stanley Cup title, guided them to two other playoff appearances and captured the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s Coach of the Year. He also received a three-year contract extension during the past season, which guarantees that he will lead Pittsburgh through the 2013-14 season.
Granted, these days, contract extensions for coaches can mean very little.
Just ask previous Penguins coach Michel Therrien.
If something starts to go wrong, the coach can be asked to leave town almost as quickly as he was brought in.
However, I don’t think that will happen with Bylsma.
Here is why he will be coaching the Penguins through 2014, and maybe even beyond.
Cool Under Pressure
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Like most coaches, Bylsma can be seen talking with the referees if he disagrees with a call or shouting out directions to give his players the extra push they need during a big shift.
However, he never loses his temper when the Penguins aren’t doing well. You won’t see him throwing a water bottle at a fan, for example, or standing on the bench ripping off his clothes and breaking sticks because he is arguing with a referee.
Even in 2009, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, Bylsma acted like it was an ordinary game. As time ticked down and the players began to celebrate, Bylsma stood on the bench and looked completely relaxed.
Bylsma knows how to give his players the direction they need to be a high performing team. However, he also knows that he needs to not be too involved in the game and can’t let his emotions get the best of him.
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Much like players, coaches spend time in the minors developing their skills before getting their first NHL gig. Bylsma started his path as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.
But, it is to his benefit that he was already in the Penguins organization before taking the reins in Pittsburgh.
Bylsma first came into the Pittsburgh system in 2006 as an assistant coach under Todd Richards with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. When Richards left Wilkes-Barre/Scranton prior to the 2008-09 season for a job with the San Jose Sharks, Bylsma was promoted to head coach. In fact, he got the call to be Pittsburgh’s interim coach prior to an AHL game.
The Penguins could have looked outside of the system for a good coach, but it was clear the answer was in the minor leagues. Bylsma already knew Ray Shero, and he already knew the Penguins’ style of play. It is much more practical to let a coach learn about an organization and promote him, just as you would a player, rather than look at the unemployment line when a coaching change is needed.
He Has the Respect of the Players
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From day one, Pittsburgh Penguins players have spoken highly of Bylsma.
They say his sense of humor and high energy personality is contagious (can you honestly name one other NHL coach who does cartwheels in the locker room?). They appreciate how he keeps them focused on things they can control. They aren't afraid of how he'll react if they make a mistake during a game.
Bylsma said in an interview after winning the Jack Adams Award that he doesn’t want to be the players’ friends, and I don’t think he should be.
But even though he sets boundaries, he is doing so in a reasonable manner. It hasn’t stopped the players from wanting to play for him and trying to win every night. They are receiving his message, and that’s what being an effective coach is all about.
He Develops Players
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As a former AHL coach, Bylsma understands what player development is all about. In fact, some of the players he coached in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are now working with him in Western Pennsylvania.
The Penguins roster as it currently stands has seven players who played for Bylsma in the minors: Nick Johnson, Dustin Jeffrey, Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu, Deryk Engelland, Kris Letang and Ben Lovejoy.
Bylsma got to know the potential these players had and was able to get production from them in the minor leagues. Now, they are producing on an NHL level. There are many success stories among these players, and here’s a quick look:
-Engelland, who had never played in the NHL prior to signing with the Penguins, surprised everyone by making the Pittsburgh roster out of training camp last year. He earned a contract extension and has become a key physical player, fighting heavyweights such as Toronto’s Colton Orr.
-Letestu, who was undrafted, worked his way up from the ECHL and was among rookie leaders in scoring in the early part of the season. Although he was derailed by a knee injury, his performance also prompted Shero to extend his contract.
-Kennedy posted a career high in points this year and developed a reputation as a player who could come through in the clutch.
Maybe these players would have still been successful had it not been for Bylsma, but there’s no way of knowing that. Until we find a way to figure that out, Bylsma should be partially credited with helping these players become NHL contributors.
He Gets Results
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I spoke of individual player accomplishments in the last slide, but when it comes down to it, what really matters is what the team gets done.
Bylsma cemented his place in Penguins lore after the 2009 Stanley Cup, but he has done enough since then to deserve his contract extension and long-term job security.
The Penguins have been to the 2010 and the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They finished fourth in the Eastern Conference this year despite missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for much of the season. They are getting contributions from everyone rather than leaning on one or two star players.
At the end of the day, any sane general manager is going to take a coach who gets results over one who has led teams to early playoff exits or even no playoff appearances.
In just a short time, Bylsma has kept the Penguins competitive and earned the prize that matters most in hockey, and he is likely to help the team stay among the NHL's elite for a long time to come.