PITTSBURGH – Michel Therrien, his team fading in the Eastern Conference playoff race less than a year after making the Stanley Cup finals, was fired as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ coach on Sunday night and replaced by minor-league coach Dan Bylsma.
Therrien oversaw one of the NHL’s best single-season turnarounds in his first full season in 2006-07 and coached the Penguins to within two victories of the Stanley Cup last year, but this team has struggled badly since mid-November and is danger of not making the playoffs.
General manager Ray Shero decided to fire Therrien after a 6-2 loss in Toronto on Saturday night in which the Penguins led 2-1 going into the third period. The Penguins are 27-25-5 after winning 47 games each of the last two seasons and are five points out of the final conference playoff spot. They also are 1-7-1 in their last nine road games.
“I didn’t like … the direction the team was headed,” Shero said on a conference call, not long after giving Therrien the news. “I’ve watched for a number of weeks and, at the end of the day, the direction is not that I wanted to have here. I wasn’t comfortable, and that’s why the change was made.”
Asked how much Toronto’s comeback entered into the decision, Shero said, “It wasn’t so much the outcome, it was how the game was played.”
Bylsma, a former NHL player and assistant coach, takes over the way Therrien did in the middle of the 2005-06 season when he replaced Eddie Olczyk during Sidney Crosby’s rookie season – called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
Bylsma, hired on an interim basis but expected to coach at least the rest of the season, wants the Penguins to get back to utilizing their skill, speed and world-class players Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Malkin is No. 1 in the NHL scoring race and Crosby, the 2006-07 champion, is third.
Therrien relied on a system in which every player, no matter his skill level offensively, was required to play tight defence, and there were rumblings in the dressing room that the players were no longer buying into the coach’s disciplinarian ways.
“You hear that in pro sports, that the team may have tuned the coach out, or the coach may have lost the team, but I’m not sure if you can pinpoint that,” Shero said. “As the general manager of the team, I’m very close from watching, it’s just a feeling – the timing is right.”
Bylsma did not criticize Therrien, but said it’s clear to him the Penguins need to get back to being a fast, offensive-driven team.
“With the strengths we have, we should be able to go into buildings and make teams deal with the quality of players we have at every position,” Bylsma said. “I look at a group that can win games right now, and we need to do that. We can do this, but the players have to believe we can do this.”
Bylsma, called by Shero minutes before he was to coach an AHL game, won’t even have a morning skate to get acquainted with his new team – the Penguins play at the New York Islanders on Monday afternoon.
“We need to put the brakes on – we’re in a hole, but we need to stop digging and get focused on what we need to do to play good hockey,” Bylsma said. “We need to be an aggressive group, and get focused on playing back to our strengths, and focus away from this situation the last while here.”
In Bylsma’s first season as head coach of the AHL team, the minor-league Penguins were 35-16-1-2. The former Bowling Green forward spent nine NHL seasons as a right-wing with Los Angeles and Anaheim from 1995-2004.
The Penguins have 25 games to get turned around – a hot week would get them back into the race – and both Shero and Bylsma said the immediate goal is to save the season and make the playoffs. After that, Shero said, a decision on next season’s coach will be made.
“I’m looking to these players and myself to help us go in the right direction again and start building something again and make us feel good about ourselves,” Shero said. “It’s been an uphill battle – Sergei Gonchar getting injured, Ryan Whitney’s foot operation – but this is a resilient group, and that’s what looking for, to rally the troops and make progress and make a push.”
Therrien was fired only seven months after signing a contract worth about US$1 million per season that runs through 2010-11.
“I’m not sure where it went wrong, to be honest,” Shero said. “It’s been a tough year, we’re all disappointed with the results, and our expectations were higher.”
Therrien, the former Montreal Canadiens coach, was a finalist for coach of the year award in 2006-07, after the Penguins improved by 47 points over the previous season, the fourth-best turnaround in a season in NHL history. The Penguins were 94-51-19 over the previous two seasons.
Despite injuries to Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins went 47-27-8 for 102 points last season, their second straight 100-point season, won their first division title since 1997-98 and earned their first Cup finals berth since 1991-92.
The Penguins reassigned assistant coach Andre Savard within the organization, and Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins’ director of player development, joined the staff as an assistant coach. Assistant coach Mike Yeo and goaltending coach Gilles Meloche will remain with the team.
Therrien is the fifth NHL coach to be replaced this season and second this month. Ottawa fired Craig Hartsburg two weeks ago.