During an off day in Montreal at the World Junior Championship, Dan Bylsma was asked to comment on some of the players in the tournament. There as a game analyst for the NHL Network, Bylsma begged off, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize any possible future relationships with any of the players who were there.
Well, Bylsma will now have a chance to work with one of the biggest names that was there that day. Jack Eichel, who was the captain of the U.S. team for the tournament, will play his first pro years under Bylsma with the Buffalo Sabres. And this can be special. Very special.
After watching their team lose the draft lottery and the right to draft Connor McDavid and seeing their team get left at the altar by Mike Babcock, Sabres fans could be excused for thinking they’re settling for second-best on both counts. That would be premature and, as far as we all know for sure, just plain wrong.
Yes, McDavid is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the draft ahead of Eichel. One GM I spoke with this season already has him in the Hall of Fame. Nobody is doing that with Eichel just yet. But the two young men played in entirely different levels of competition this season, so it’s not unfathomable to think Eichel might be closer to McDavid in skill level and overall ability than we might think. Case in point was the OHL final in which McDavid was shut down by the Oshawa Generals, in large part, due to the efforts of a 20-year-old center in Cole Cassels and two 21-year-old defensemen – Dakota Mermis and Josh Brown. As a freshman with Boston University last season, Eichel was competing against players of that age and level of maturity in almost every shift of every game, yet that didn’t stop him from leading all Division I players with 71 points and becoming only the second freshman in history to win the Hobey Baker Award, after Paul Kariya.
The same goes for Bylsma. While Babcock was doing the ceremonial mating dance with a host of NHL teams, he was being lauded as the best coach on the planet. But Bylsma is an excellent coach as well. Bylsma spent six years with the Pittsburgh Penguins and won one Stanley Cup, Babcock 10 with the Detroit Red Wings and one Stanley Cup. And don’t forget, the only time the two faced each other in a playoff series was in the 2009 final when the rookie Bylsma got the better of the veteran Babcock and won the Cup.
Does Bylsma have his warts? Of course he does, but so does Babcock and Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville. Critics will point at Bylsma’s defensive system that seemed to place far too much responsibility on the defensemen and not enough on the forwards. Others will say he didn’t match lines and try to get his stars away from the top shutdown forwards when he was in Pittsburgh. And others will claim that some of the Penguins young players saw their development stall under Bylsma. And then there’s the annual playoff letdown. And none of those can really be disputed, but there’s also something about a man going a year without working that can force him to assess his coaching style.
But in his time in Pittsburgh, Bylsma has proved he can work with star players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and that will be key in his relationship with the likes of Eichel and Sam Reinhart, two players who figure on being a huge part of pulling this team by the bootstraps back up to respectability. You might think that dealing with guys such as Crosby and Malkin entails simply opening the door and letting them out onto the ice, but there are a lot of intricacies we don’t see behind the scenes, such as juggling the needs and wants of your superstars and balancing them against the needs and wants of the rest of your group.
And Bylsma has proved to be very good at that. You don’t get the job coaching the U.S. Olympic team if you have a reputation of crossing swords with star players. And just out of interest, what’s more likely to happen first next season: Babcock has a blow-up with Phil Kessel or Bylsma goes to the mat with Evander Kane? Ever heard a former player have something uncharitable to say about Bylsma.
In fact, you could argue that Bylsma’s personality is much better suited than Babcock’s to the Sabres at this point in their development. With a few rare exceptions, there was no quibble with the effort put forth by the Sabres last season. They gave their all for the most part, but were just a really bad hockey team. Perhaps they’ll respond better to a guy who displays the kind of patience and encouragement this group is going to require as it matures.
And when it does, the Sabres will still have a coach with a winning pedigree if they keep Bylsma around. To be sure, when that day comes, fans in Buffalo will be long past lamenting the days they lost out on Connor McDavid and Mike Babcock.