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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dead Man Walking by @ExcitedBobErrey

Some of the biggest questions about the Pittsburgh Penguins during an offseason filled with uncertainty didn't even pertain to the players on the ice. The moment the Pens finished Game 4 against Boston without a goal and the ECF against the Bruins without a win, many fans began to wonder: Would Ray Shero bring back Dan Byslma, and should he be allowed to come back after another disappointing playoff exit? While the first question was answered with a contract extension that showed more faith in Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle's financial commitment than Bylsma's coaching ability, the answer to the second question will only come with time. However, that doesn't mean that talk about Bylsma's future is premature or reactionary. It's a completely warranted debate given the postseason debacles of the past few years.

The debate about Dan Bylsma's ability to coach this team has nothing to do with the regular season. He was the fastest coach in league history to win his 200th game, and his 215-100-25 record, good for 67% of available points, is spectacular no matter how you look at it. However, the success of this team isn't measured during the regular season, and the coach should be held to the same standard. No number of division titles or Presidents' Trophies could ever make the season successful if the Pens lose early in the playoffs. And the playoffs are where Bylsma's coaching flaws become painfully obvious, where it's easy to see that those stellar regular season results aren't necessarily due as much to a prodigious coaching talent but rather an incredible situation. While there are certainly NHL caliber coaches that could fall short of that success with this roster, there are many, many more who would have little difficulty reaching those same levels. Taking over midseason in 2009, Dan Bylsma led Michel Therrien's team to 4 postseason series victories and the Stanley Cup. In the four postseasons since, Dan Bylsma has led Dan Bylsma's team to 3 postseason victories, including blowing a 3-2 series lead to lose to a vastly inferior Montreal team in 2010, blowing a 3-1 series lead while going 1 for 35 on the power play against Tampa Bay in 2011, being completely incapable of controlling his team during an absolute meltdown against Philadelphia in 2012, and watching helplessly as the offense disappeared against Boston in 2013. His playoff record including the Stanley Cup victory is 36-29; since then he's gone 20-21.

That being said, let's get one thing out of the way right now: Dan Bylsma is a very good coach, possibly even a great coach. His work during the 2010-11 season is enough proof of that, and he earned every bit of that Jack Adams award. Being able to guide a team that lost both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the second half of the year, played Jordan Staal and Mark Letestu as the top two centers, and was led offensively by Tyler Kennedy is nothing short of astounding.  As impressive a coaching feat at that was, it doesn't apply to the situation the Pens find themselves in today. The Penguins don't need a coach who can mask his team's talent deficiency in order to remain competitive with the rest of the league. They need a coach who can put their elite talent in the best position to succeed, both during games and before. Someone who is able to design a system and gameplan maximizing his team's strengths but also capable and willing to adjust things on the fly when the plan isn't working or the opposing team counters with something more effective. Mostly, someone who tries to fit his coaching to his players, not fit his players to his coaching.

Dan Bylsma's coaching style can best be described as "Easy Bake Oven": Do the preparations and get everything into place, set the timer for 60 minutes, and you have a finished hockey game. Add 5 minutes or so if necessary when the game isn't quite done yet. While there are things that Dan Bylsma does very well, his early success has helped deflect attention from the areas he badly struggles with. To be fair to Dan Bylsma, he's still developing and learning as a head coach. But you don't offer an on the job learning experience to a head coach when you build a roster designed to win now. You can't afford to watch year after year slip away while your elite talent enters and leaves its prime because of misplaced loyalty to the man behind the bench, especially when his shortcomings are prominent in defeat. Dan Bylsma the coach can tell you what you do with a developing talent that keeps making mistakes when the stakes are highest: You remove him from the equation and make him watch the game from the stands.

Coming into this season, Dan Bylsma and Marc-Andre Fleury found themselves in the same boat: A string of regular season success followed by bad playoff performances that left them looking horribly out of place. But while Fleury has responded to the criticism by elevating his game to new levels, Bylsma hasn't responded in the same way, or even faced anywhere near the same level of accountability. The Penguins recently lost 4 out of 5 games while scoring just 1 goal in each of their losses. They've scored 1 or fewer goals 6 times in 22 games this season, and that jumps to 10 time in 26 games dating back to the ECF. This slump came during a time when seemingly every player recognized the issues with the offense yet were incapable or unwilling to do those things during the games. That falls on the coaching staff, they need to drive home the message and make sure it's acted upon or take drastic measures to get things through otherwise. Bylsma deserves credit for swapping Bennett and Dupuis before Monday's game against Anaheim, but how long until that wears off and it's back to business as usual? It has to be concerning that it took that long for him to recognize that it was a problem that needed to be fixed, especially given how long he stubbornly refused to change his lines last year as Jarome Iginla looked as helplessly out of place as you'll ever see a future first ballot HOFer. The 5 games it took Bylsma to make an adjustment should have little impact on how the Penguins finish the season, but imagine how the Boston series might have turned out if it didn't take Bylsma that long to see the painfully obvious and he swapped Dupuis and Iginla. That type of ineptitude is what will kill any team in the playoffs, even one as talented as the Penguins.

There doesn't appear to be any measure of accountability from the coaching staff, at least after a player earns his veteran status. Young players can see their ice time cut to nothing after a single mistake and they can see a clearly inferior veteran player (i.e. Deryk Engelland) get playing time ahead of them. No matter how big a slump a veteran player finds themselves in, no matter how ineffective they are or how many mistakes they make, there's no holding them accountable for their poor play. They won't get their ice time slashed, they won't lose their time on the power play, there won't be any significant demotions in the lineup, and the day Bylsma makes a top 6 player a healthy scratch to send a message is the day pigs fly out of his ass. Is there any wonder that Bylsma was completely incapable of reigning in his team when the Flyers so easily knocked them off their game in 2012? Does it surprise anyone that this offense can suffer a goal drought, be able to tell you what the problem is, and do nothing to fix it?

Even with all his flaws Dan Bylsma is still a good coach, but it'd be silly to hold onto him simply because he's a good coach. Good coaches get fired all the time in the NHL, and often GMs are correct in doing so. Shero made the difficult decision to fire Michel Therrien less than a year after a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, and Therrien is a good coach. His first full season in Pittsburgh he led the team to a 47 point improvement in the standings. His first season back in Montreal he had the Canadiens on pace for a 30 point improvement over the course of a full season. He laid the groundwork for the Penguins postseason success, but it became clear that he had outgrown his usefulness. His strength is molding young, immature players into a tough, defensively responsible hockey team, and in February 2009 it was clear that he was the wrong coach at the wrong time.

In February 2009, Dan Bylsma was the right coach at the right time. He was a breath of fresh air succeeding the strict, authoritative Therrien, and his hands off approach in Therrien's system worked wonders. But the more Bylsma puts his stamp on this team, the more it becomes clear that he's now the wrong coach at the wrong time. With each postseason it becomes clear that this team needs a coach who can matchup with the guy on the other bench and keep his team in a position to succeed. They need a coach who can do a better job holding the players accountable and getting them to do what needs to be done on the ice. They need a coach who doesn't put blind faith into his system and can recognize when things aren't working and be able to make timely adjustments. It took Ray Shero 4 months after extending Michel Therrien's contract following the Eastern Conference Championship to realize he needed to go in a different direction. How many postseason failures does he need to realize the same about Dan Bylsma?

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