Hopefully when the dust has settled and the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era has ended with their inductions in the HHOF, Dan Bylsma's time behind the bench in Pittsburgh can be remembered less for the playoff meltdowns, less for the way the team seemed to tune him out at the end, and more for the time before the insanely high expectations when he took over during the middle of a disappointing season and reinvigorated a talented squad on their way to the franchise's third Stanley Cup Championship.
That time is not today; the wounds are still too fresh, the missed promise, potential, and chances still too real for a team whose window still hasn't yet completely come to a close. And it's still too difficult to forget that while Ray Shero and Bylsma's tenures in Pittsburgh will forever be linked at the hip, the two never seemed to fully be on the same page, most notably with the Jarome Iginla acquisition. Shero paid a price worthy of adding a key contributor, but Iginla's declining speed and the coaching staff's unwillingness to play him at his natural position left him out of place and incapable of living up to the trade.
Mike Johnston was initially a breath of fresh air once Byslma's coaching had begun to grow stale. It was evidenced most in Kris Letang's play, leading breathtaking rushes up the ice that showcased his skating and ability to create chances off the rush, but Johnston allowed the mobile, puck moving defensemen - notably Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff (replacing a similar player in that regard in Matt Niskanen) - the ability to let their talent shine through. Johnston simplified what had become overly complex under Bylsma, it can be argued to a fault, and it worked well to start.
The injuries that piled up at the end of last season provided a glimpse of what could happen if Johnston didn't have that type of mobile, puck moving talent available to him on the blue line. It's difficult for any team to compete with that many injured players and man games lost, but it sank the Penguins. Including the playoffs, Pittsburgh managed to score 1.75 goals/game in the final 12 games after they lost both Ehrhoff and Letang. They still managed just 2.00 goals/game from March onwards. And despite an impressive overhaul of the forward group this past offseason, the defense found itself neglected to the point that it's been a struggling Kris Letang, a rusty Olli Maatta, and little depth in the early going.
And while the numbers in the early going suffer from a lack of games, they aren't promising even when assuming for any correction back to the mean. The Penguins rank just 27th with 2.06 goals per game and 29th converting just 12.3% of their power play opportunities. They're allowing more Corsi events against per 60 minutes than all but three other teams, leaving them 26th in the league with a 48.0 CF%. And without the stellar play of Marc-Andre Fleury the team would very well be lower than tied for 6th place in the conference like they currently are.
It's fair to question how good of a fit Mike Johnston is at this point, and whether or not he's in over his head at the NHL level. The team is struggling on the back end and unwilling to make any changes on the blue line other than shuffling the pairings. The team is bleeding shot attempts against and still isn't willing to consider players who might be able to turn the tide of possession back in Pittsburgh's favor. And at this point, barring a trade that brings back a talented defenseman, it doesn't seem likely the coaching staff can scheme around what they have.
Jim Rutherford and the front office have put together a much different team than what they inherited a year and a half ago, but in a twist of irony they've perfected the roster for what they took over from, not what they have today. Mike Johnston had the type of injury fall off that Dan Bylsma never suffered. Maybe the team's luck ran out, or maybe it's because allowing more freedom for lesser talented players is a recipe for disaster. Maybe a lesser talented group of defensemen would benefit from fewer decisions, and the stretch passes commonly seen when Bylsma was in charge surely would help an overwhelmed defense get the puck out of the zone and up the ice, leading to fewer shot attempts against. Finally with a deep group of forwards getting the puck up the ice quickly would've led to more zone time and a greater ability to wear the team down in their own zone. And with Fleury's career starting to peak the team would be better positioned to fend off the inevitable odd men rushers against.
The defense is going to continue to be a problem, and it's only likely to get worse. Fleury can't prop the team up in its own zone forever, and something needs to be done fix what's shaping up to be a major weakness. Unfortunately, the guy sent packing for not getting it done would've been an ideal fit to get it done now. The team no longer has the man who spent years running the same system in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as a fall back option but rather a 3rd round pick in his place. There's no going back at this point, which is unfortunate as the team's been built with Bylsma's blueprint. It's just 2 seasons to late for a franchise that seems destined to never having everyone on the same page.