TORONTO – It’s tempting to look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and focus on what they don’t have.
With a concussion continuing to keep Sidney Crosby off the ice and knee surgery having ended Evgeni Malkin’s season, the absences have cast a large shadow over this group. However, one major steadying presence remains in the form of coach Dan Bylsma, who has defied the odds by keeping his team pointed in the right direction.
The secret to his success? Whether Bylsma is sending out No. 87 (Crosby) or No. 10 (Mark Letestu) to take the opening faceoff, the way he prepares his team doesn’t change.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the way we want to play and the expectations (we have),” Bylsma said Wednesday before Pittsburgh faced the Maple Leafs. “No matter what happens in the game, no matter if we’re up or down, no matter if we’re on the road or if we’re in a tough building, we want to continue to play the same way.
“If someone is not in the lineup it doesn’t change. We don’t sound fire alarms.”
The approach has worked during a season where the team’s injury situation has been the equivalent of a five-alarm blaze.
Jordan Staal didn’t play his first game until Jan. 1 while Malkin only dressed once after Jan. 18. Crosby hasn’t skated since Jan. 5 and there’s no certainty he’ll play again this season.
A number of others have also missed time, including top-line winger Chris Kunitz, but the Penguins still entered play Wednesday as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
All along, Bylsma has conducted himself like a patriarch trying to keep his family together during a difficult time. He offers encouraging words when the time seems right but is also comfortable letting others deliver the message.
“As a coach, I can talk every day until I’m blue in the face,” said Bylsma. “But we kind of want the culture that this is their team and this is how we play. (They have) ownership in it. The guy’s in that room, at this point in time in the year, do more talking than I do.”
Bylsma emerged as one of the star characters during the HBO “24/7” series chronicling the Penguins and Washington Capitals heading into the Winter Classic. The former NHL journeyman came across as equal parts authoritative and genuine with cameras rolling behind the scenes.
Hired to replace the fired Michel Therrien in February 2009, Bylsma helped a young Pittsburgh team win the Stanley Cup just four months into his first NHL coaching job. Over time, he’s managed to earn the respect of his players.
“He’s passionate, he’s a smart man and he wants to win by being a good human being,” said veteran forward Max Talbot. “He kind of gives us his values of life. It’s not just about going out there and giving your best—it’s more than that. It’s about being a good man off the ice and doing the right things to be successful.”
There has been no detectable change in Bylsma’s demeanour since his star players went out with injury.
“He’s always the same old Dan,” said forward Pascal Dupuis. “Always passionate about what he does and intense. He just loves the game. He’s going to prepare with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or without them the same way I think.
“That’s the way he approaches every game, that’s the way the team approaches it too.”
One of the biggest changes to his daily routine has been having to memorize the laundry list of injuries that have impacted his lineup.
Asked by a beat reporter for injury updates on Wednesday morning, Bylsma went on to talk for more than a minute. Nothing much has changed with Crosby’s situation.
“We’re anticipating him some time getting better,” said Bylsma. “That may be in a month, it could be this summer—we don’t know. We’re going to continue preparing to play just the way we have been. Sid’s progress is not something we ask (about) every day as a coaching staff.
“He’s been doing a lot better, he’s been progressingand we hope that means he’s going to get better and return to 100 per cent health this spring some time.”