PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma will stand behind the Pittsburgh Penguins’ bench in an NHL season opener for the first time Friday night against the New York Rangers, and he knows it will be impossible not to be excited.
His first camp is over, his players are comfortable with his system, the long season awaits.
It’s not much different from the way new coaches Todd Richards in Minnesota and Joe Sacco in Colorado are feeling. Except for this: Bylsma won the Stanley Cup less than four months ago.
Because he did, Bylsma now has one of the difficult acts in NHL coaching history to follow – his own. Bylsma was only the second rookie coach to win the Stanley Cup after taking over a team during the season, and he’s already lasted in his job longer than the first to do it.
Al MacNeil rescued Montreal in 1971 by replacing Claude Ruel and raising the Stanley Cup following a final-round comeback against Chicago, only to be rewarded with a demotion to the Canadiens’ AHL team. MacNeil didn’t become an NHL head coach again for eight seasons.
“Wow. I didn’t know I had a chance to be fired this summer,” Bylsma said Thursday.
No chance for that. Not after Bylsma took over a talented but confused and system-strangled team that had lost 30 of its first 57 games and accomplished one of the NHL’s most remarkable in-season turnarounds. The Penguins were 10th in the 15-team Eastern Conference when Bylsma took over on Feb. 15 and appeared to have little chance to make the playoffs, only to go 34-11-4 under their new coach, counting the post-season.
The way they kept rallying was special, too.
The Penguins overcame 2-0 series deficits against Washington and Detroit and were the first team since MacNeil’s Canadiens 38 years before to win a final Game 7 on the road. And they did it with a coach who had no previous NHL or minor-league head coaching experience until he was hired at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) to begin last season.
Obviously, this took more than a couple of motivational speeches and some tinkering with the Xs and Os to pull off. Before Bylsma could win games, he had to win over his team.
“The atmosphere in the room was the change,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He was trying to get the guys to be a little more loosened up and have fun and get back to what we were. “
“You can have fun and work hard, at least that’s how I felt.”
It also was the way Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and nearly every other player felt, too.
The Penguins had gone to the final the season before, but coach Michel Therrien’s disciplinarian style was wearing thin and players no longer believed in his rigid, don’t-make-a-mistake system.
Bylsma instantly switched to an attack style in which players didn’t sit back, waiting to create pressure during transition. The forechecking was more aggressive, and so was the mindset. It was go, go, go all the time, and off the Penguins went.
“I love it,” Crosby said. “As far as a mentality, that’s a great way to look at games.”
“You prepare yourself as much as possible. You go in there knowing if you play that way, you’re going to get chances and give yourself a great chance to win. You want to work under that condition.””
Apparently, other teams do, too. During the preseason, Crosby saw other teams copying what the Penguins did by trying to possess the puck as much as possible to wear down opponents.
“To be emulated is a great form of flattery, but it’s not something I attribute to myself,” Bylsma said. “It’s not Dan Bylsma hockey, it’s not a secret that I have revealed.”
“This is what happens when you have success. We do the same thing, we look at other teams and say, ‘Man, that gave us a hard time.’ … And if you pay attention, there are going to be some new things we’re going to do based on other team’s success.”
Bylsma passes off credit the same way he once fed the puck to Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles, but he did far more than allow some of the NHL’s most gifted offensive players to play their preferred way.
He also brought a calming presence and a studious approach, which shouldn’t have been a surprise considering he and his father, Jay, a college instructor, have written four sports books, including “So You Want to Play in the NHL: A Guide for Young Players.”
Penguins general manager Ray Shero has noticed how much his own son gets out of the book, and it illustrates why Shero felt comfortable turning over an underachieving team to a man with minimal head coaching experience.
“It’s our mindset. We try to go after teams, and I think it’s no fluke that a lot of teams in the league are playing that way now,” Crosby said. “Before, Detroit was kind of the team that set that example.”
Again, Pittsburgh finds itself as the gold standard, just as it was in the early 1990s with Mario Lemieux and a youthful Jaromir Jagr. The difference is the coaches back then were Bob Johnson, a longtime successful college coach, and Scotty Bowman, arguably the greatest coach in NHL history. Now, the Penguins are being run by a man whose head coaching resume consists of a single season.
“It’s pretty easy to explain,” Bylsma said. “Our players, when asked and confronted with what other people thought of them, what they thought of themselves and how they played and what they were doing on the ice, didn’t like it. … They decided they could change it, they wanted to change it. We thought we could play a certain way, we thought we could be a certain team and that’s what happened.”