I told myself I wouldn't write this post.
I told myself I wouldn't compare Team USA under Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins under Dan Bylsma, because they're two completely different situations. The outcome of the Olympics does not affect Dan Bylsma's ability as coach of the Pens in the slightest. A Gold Medal for Team USA wouldn't make Dan Bylsma more likely to lead the team to a Stanley Cup, nor would a disappointing Olympic finish lead to a greater chance of a disappointing playoff exit. While Bylsma's coaching job in the Olympics certainly could be reflective of his coaching abilities, it wouldn't change how things would play out in Pittsburgh. A pair of disappointing shutout losses to finish without a medal doesn't mean the Pens will be golfing early this spring and it certainly doesn't make Dan Bylsma a bad coach. I believed that heading into the Olympics, and I still believe that now.
And yet here I am writing about Dan Bylsma, Team USA's failure, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's certainly not a post I wanted to write, because it's a post that only gets written if Team USA disappoints. It's definitely not a post I expected to write either, especially because I still believe what happened in Sochi, stays in Sochi, and has no bearing on Dan Bylsma's ability to coach the team in the playoffs. But then the Olympics played out like a script no Hollywood producer would ever find plausible. Stop me when this stops being familiar. Team USA races through the preliminary round, winning all 3 games and earning 8 out of a possible 9 points. They lead the tournament in goals scored in the preliminary round (15) , finished with the second fewest allowed (4), and earned the 2nd seed for the medal round. They went from being a step behind the favorites entering the Sochi Olympics to forcing themselves to the forefront of the Gold Medal discussion. In their first elimination game Team USA beat the Czech Republic 5-2 to reach the semifinals, where only a two game losing streak could prevent them from leaving without a medal.
Team USA lost to Canada, 1-0, in a game where it couldn't generate offense and needed to rely on its goalie to manage to keep things that close. The Canadians managed to clog things up in transition, and the Americans weren't able to counter. While they missed out on a chance to play for Gold, they still had a Bronze Medal on the line when they faced Team Finland. Except Finland is even better at being able to play a trapping style on the big sheet of ice, and a 5-0 blowout loss resulted. The biggest stage, and they came up small, unable to score and unable to beat the trap and sustain offensive pressure.
How much more of this do you need to hear, Pens fans?
Dejan Kovacevic had an excellent piece on the problems Team USA faced in the medal round, and with a finger on the pulse of the locker room he didn't hold back in assigning blame for what troubled the Americans in their final two games. The team played passively, in the words of the players, and were hardly put in the best position to succeed. Dan Bylsma, with an arrogance Vladimir Putin surely was proud of, stuck to "the same system, the same lines, and even the same exhausted goaltender" that didn't work against Canada. It was no surprise to see Team Finland play that style of hockey, as it had been working well for them throughout the entire tournament. It was a little surprising to see Team Canada adapt that style of play, but much less so considering that Claude Julien was on Team Canada's bench and effectively swept the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs last year with a very similar strategy. The least surprising of all, in hindsight, was 120 minutes of hockey being played without an effective counter by the man behind Team USA's bench.
I meant it, stop me when this stops being familiar.
There's been a lot of reactionary criticism of Dan Bylsma following Team USA's failures, and while it'd be a bit foolish to take his Olympic failures as a means to criticize his NHL work, they certainly fit flawlessly into the already developing narrative. I've written about Dan Bylsma and the Penguins once or twice before, and we're once again watching the same story unfold. Dan Bylsma is simply the wrong coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, not because of what happened in the Olympics, which certainly didn't help the argument otherwise, but because the same problems keep surfacing over and over again. It's our own personal Pittsburgh Penguins Groundhog Day, and with each passing year it becomes harder and harder to believe Ray Shero, Mario Lemieux, and Ron Burkle let this continue to repeat itself. In 2009, Dan Bylsma led Michel Therrien's team to 4 postseason series wins, going 16-8 to win the Stanley Cup. He took over an already well structured team and system and breathed new life into a talented team that desperately needed it. Since then, Dan Bylsma has led Dan Bylsma's team to 3 postseason series wins, a 20-21 record, and more frustration and disbelief among the fanbase than can be accounted for. Now, add in this Olympic failure, and I'll be damned if he didn't stick to the script exactly.
Some of you, if you've made it this far, will have absolutely hated what I've had to say. Some people will blindly hate Dan Bylsma, and some will blindly defend him, but it's more than fine to direct legitimate criticisms his way. And I'm sorry, but at this point what argument is there for bringing him back next season? He wins a lot of games, you say? I'd love to hear an argument, with a straight face, that there aren't plenty of coaches in the league that could lead this team to the top of the standings in the regular season. His coaching ability when the injuries pile up? It's certainly impressive, but if we're missing Crosby and Malkin like in 2011 or two thirds of our defense like we were in December during the playoffs, it's not going to matter who's behind the bench because it's going to make winning the Cup a long shot. He's a good coach? He is, but that's hardly a reason for allowing him to keep his job. It's easy to see why you wouldn't pair Joe Thornton or Henrik Sedin with a couple pass first wingers who have questionable shots, just like it's easy to see why you don't surround Alex Ovechkin with snipers who can't pass. They're bad fits, but for whatever reason it's more difficult for some to see that when it comes to a coach, especially a good coach.
When Dan Bylsma hits the open market next, there's going to be demand for his services, and one team will be lucky to have him as their coach. He'd be a good fit in a small market that's not maxing out the salary cap on its roster and has a talent disadvantage. That's what he's good at, and that's what he's shown to be his strength. Players love him, and he's good at squeezing out results even when the talent isn't there. But the talent is here in Pittsburgh. With both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup this team will always threaten the top of the standings and be a contender in the postseason. The mindset in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization is Stanley Cup or Bust, and that needs to be reflected with their coach. They need to get someone behind the bench who is best qualified to get this team through the playoffs, because they have enough talent to get there as a high seed regardless of who's in charge.
I guess in the end, it's much easier to still believe that Sochi changes nothing than I thought reacting to yet another all too familiar ending for Dan Bylsma. Because nothing has changed with the Pittsburgh Penguins; they're still in the same position they were before the Sochi Olympics. The change is in my expectations and how I view the team, where I believed that somehow this year would be different from the previous playoff disasters. That Dan Bylsma would have learned something from those early exits, that bringing in Jacques Martin would help fix things when it mattered, that the team leading the conference could be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference Championship and a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. That the team wouldn't have to advance in the playoffs in spite of Dan Bylsma, but with Bylsma making the correct calls and decisions throughout the course of a series. That my hopes that this year would be different were more than just wishful hoping. I'm certainly not eliminating the Penguins from the playoffs, nor do I believe that there's absolutely no chance Dan Bylsma can lead this to another Stanley Cup. I will root on this team, win or lose, but I've got to ask Ray Shero, Mario Lemieux, and Ron Burkle something important:
Stop this from being familiar -- how much is enough?