PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Dan Bylsma couldn’t avoid speculation about his status as the Penguins coach in the days following Pittsburgh’s four-game pratfall against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, even in his own house.
Shortly after the Bruins swept the Stanley Cup favourites out of the playoffs last week, Bylsma’s son Bryan asked his dad if he still had a job.
“I would be lying to say that I was able to block all that stuff out,” Bylsma said.
Now he won’t have to.
The Penguins signed the second-winningest coach in franchise history to a two-year extension through 2016 on Wednesday, a very public vote of confidence after Pittsburgh’s quest for a Stanley Cup to bookend the one it captured in 2009 ended with four miserable losses to the Bruins.
“I have a very good coach moving forward that I want to lead this team,” general manager Ray Shero said. “I want to reward him with an extension that shows him and shows people that he’s my coach and I believe in him.”
It’s a belief Shero stressed was not shaken despite a fourth straight spring without a Cup for one of the NHL’s most talented teams. Assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden will also be retained after the Penguins decided it wasn’t time to change course following a regular season in which the Penguins posted the second-best record in the league.
Shero, who met with owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle earlier this week, was prepared to go to bat for Bylsma, who is 201-92-25 since taking over for Michel Therrien in February, 2009. Turns out, Shero didn’t have to step up after Lemieux and Burkle told him they were fully on board with keeping Bylsma in the fold.
“They were 100 per cent supportive,” Shero said.
Even if the Penguins are just 3-4 in post-season series since captain Sidney Crosby raised the Cup after beating Detroit in Game 7 of the 2009 finals. Pittsburgh has fallen to a lower-seeded team each time, though the fourth-seeded Bruins hardly qualified as a major underdog.
Boston didn’t play like one, never trailing as the Penguins were swept for the first time in 34 years. Most galling was a 6-1 defeat at home in Game 2 that changed the tenor of the series. Pittsburgh regrouped and played well in a double-overtime loss in Game 3 and a 1-0 loss in Game 4, pretty clear evidence Bylsma had not lost the dressing room.
He certainly didn’t lose Shero.
“We did some very good things over the course of the season,” Shero said. “We won the Atlantic Division championship. We won 15 straight games that put us in position to have home-ice (advantage).”
Those accomplishments and Bylsma’s solid relationship with stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin proved more powerful than the sting of disappointment. Malkin is entering the final year of his contract and the Penguins are intent on keeping him. Having the coach who helped turn Malkin into the league MVP a year ago certainly won’t hurt.
Shero understands the lure of blowing things up. It happens frequently in Pittsburgh. Bylsma’s 319-game run is the longest since the franchise was founded in 1967.
Bringing in a new face didn’t make sense to Shero, who pointed to the stability of franchises like the Detroit Red Wings as the key to being a consistent Cup contender. Besides, while the new deal brings a sense of momentary calm, it hardly assures a sense of long-term security. Therrien was fired halfway through the 2008-09 season even though he signed a three-year extension a few months earlier.
Shero also cautioned the deal doesn’t absolve Bylsma or the players of what happened against the Bruins. It also doesn’t mean the window for this group has closed.
“We’ve been to the conference finals three times in the last six years,” Shero said. “We want a Cup. We want to get back there.”
Bylsma in particular. He called the extension “important” and in some ways a relief. He traded texts with his brothers assuring them he was “OK” after the loss to the Bruins. Now he can head into the off-season trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
His first order will be finding a new goaltending coach. Longtime goaltending coach Gille Meloche will move into a scouting role and whoever inherits his position will have to find a way to restore the confidence of Marc-Andre Fleury. The former No. 1 pick imploded in the opening round against the New York Islanders and lost his job to Tomas Vokoun.
Bylsma and Shero insist the 28-year-old Fleury remains a part of the team’s future.
“Does he understand situation he’s in? I think he does,” Bylsma said. “Going forward there is not repair work to do with Marc-Andre Fleury and the coach and our team. He’s a good goalie … he’s going to win the majority of the games for us.”
With Bylsma at the helm.
“We want to put ourselves into situations to win the Stanley Cup every year,” Bylsma said. “We felt we’ve done that with our team.”
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP