Dan Bylsma has coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup Championship, he has coached them to a playoff berth in each of his 6 seasons behind the Penguins bench, he was also named as Team USA’s Head Coach in Sochi for the Winter Olympics. All of these accomplishments would point towards a coach that knows what he is doing.
However, the Penguins have been underachievers in the playoffs since winning it all in 2009. They were defeated by a plucky Canadiens team riding a wave of elite goaltending from Jaroslav Halak in 2010, in 2011 they were ravaged by injury but managed to blow a 3-1 series lead versus Tampa Bay, 2012 saw the Penguins unravel on the national stage against the Philadelphia Flyers, and last year despite “winning” the trade deadline the Penguins were outclassed by the Boston Bruins.
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the middle of their primes. The expectation is that they should compete for the Stanley Cup each and every season. The Penguins have not won a game in the Conference Finals since 2009.
Is this on coaching? The answer is not simple.
Over the course of Bylsma’s tenure as Penguins Head Coach he has led them to the 2nd best Fenclose % in the NHL from 2009-2013 at 53.3%. Only the Chicago Blackhawks have been better at 55.1%.
Special teams has also been a strength in recent years with the Bylsma led Penguins. During the past 3 seasons the Penguins have had a top 5 power play, 3 out of the last 4 seasons the Penguins have also had a top 5 penalty kill.
Bylsma led teams have also faced tons of adversity, mostly injury related adversity, and the Penguins continue to churn out regular season success. From 2008-2012 the Penguins were the #4 seed each season in the Eastern Conference. Last season the Penguins were the #1 seed. This season despite having 500 man games lost, they were the #2 seed in the East and were never challenged for the Metropolitan Division crown. This was in a year where the Penguins depth was called into question even before the season began.
So what is the problem? Why do the Penguins continually come up short when they have some good statistical success on the surface?
One reason could be the complex systems that Dan Bylsma runs. When they work they look surgical, when they don’t, you have the 2012 playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Former Penguins defenseman Ben LoveJoy, now currently a member of the Anaheim Ducks, had this to say about his time playing under Bylsma:
Lovejoy said puck retrieval and breakout plays in Anaheim’s system are more comfortable.
“It’s been 100 percent better for me,” he said. “Pittsburgh has obviously been incredibly successful playing the style they play, and when it works, it’s so pretty, so good. It’s a complex style. They have players who do it very, very well. Perhaps it wasn’t right for me. I did everything I could for five and a half years to learn that style. But playing Anaheim’s style has been very beneficial for me.
(Pittsburgh) was family to me,” Lovejoy said. “But this trade was what I needed.”
Star Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has seen his share of struggles in the past year and a half. Did he forget how to play hockey or is his poor play a product of an unnecessarily complex system? I also recall when Paul Martin joined the Penguins he had his growing pains as well. Martin is as a cerebral player as they come which makes this trend alarming. Hockey should be simple not complex
Former Penguin Brenden Morrow also echoed some of what Ben Lovejoy said:
“With the system they use in Pittsburgh,” former Penguins forward Brenden Morrow said, “they like to make the puck do most of the work.”
In St. Louis, Morrow said, a more conservative style has been beneficial for his game.
“We definitely use a safer style,” Morrow said. “A lot more puck support. That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh’s system doesn’t work. They have the speed and talent to pull it off. But it’s not easy. And I didn’t have the speed to make it work with my game.”
The last quote from Brenden Morrow is something I find intriguing and could shed some light on why the Penguins have struggled at times. Over the past few seasons the Penguins have relied on using classic style gritty bottom 6 players. These players have included but are not limited to Tanner Glass, Craig Adams, Taylor Pyatt, Eric Tangradi, and Deryk Engelland. The common theme with these players is the lack of foot speed and puck skill they possess. If what Brenden Morrow is saying is true, then shouldn’t the coach adjust his system to better fit his roster?
One of a coach’s prime responsibilities is devising a game plan that best suits his roster. It appears at least on some level that Bylsma has failed to do so in recent years. Players such as Beau Bennett, Jayson Megna, Simon Despres and Brian Gibbons have only really seen their additions to the lineup because of injury and a lowered salary cap, not necessarily because they were the desired options at the time.
There has been a trend of Bylsma playing players who are below replacement level for reasons unknown. This has kept the Penguins from icing what could be their optimal lineup. The Penguins continue to value “safe” players who don’t take risks, yet those “safe” players still make the same number of mistakes that the “riskier” players make.
The other negative impact Bylsma’s roster preferences have had is that the Penguins are failing to take advantage of entry level contracts. As a general rule, each Cup Champion in the cap era has had at least a few players on an ELC deal make some sort of significant impact on the roster. In the Penguins instance it was Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang.
In the last few years the Penguins have not taken advantage of ELC players, most notably with Simon Despres. Competent young players on cheap deals give teams the flexibility to fill out their roster. Instead of trusting Simon Despres the Penguins splurged on the “safer” Rob Scuderi who is having a less than remarkable season. This lack of cap space prevented the Penguins from using their resources to shore up the bottom 6 forward group, a clear weakness.
Then there is the X factor known as Marc Andre Fleury. Fleury is well known for his playoff shortcomings in the past few years. When a goalie plays that poorly, it will kill any coach’s best laid plans. Unless of course you don’t actually play that goaltender. Bylsma wisened up last year and went to Tomas Vokoun, it won Pittsburgh the Islanders series and ultimately got the Penguins to the Conference Finals.
Fast forward to this year and Marc Andre Fleury has done it again. Multiple gaffes towards the end of Game 4 against Columbus cost Pittsburgh the playoff game. A goalie can only kill the coach if the coach puts him in. How will Bylsma let this play out moving forward?
An early playoff exit by the Penguins will most likely seal Bylsma’s fate as Penguins Head Coach, but what will a Conference Final exit do to his future?
I’m not as interested in when/if the Penguins are eliminated as much as I am in the how. If the Pens’ continues to make personnel choices that value grit over skill, they should move on from him regardless of how the Penguins finish. Skill rules the day in the NHL and teams that find themselves hoisting the Cup have it in spades.
It is time to simplify, trust youth, and value skill in Pittsburgh. Is Bylsma the guy who will facilitate that? You have to wonder.
With the salary cap rising next year Ray Shero should have a better chance at providing Bylsma a lineup with more depth than the one constructed this season. Maybe that will force his hand in playing skill players. Should it really be that way?
All that said, if the Penguins make a decent run but still come up short, it would make sense to bring Bylsma back for in 2014-2015 – only with an extremely short leash.
Bringing Bylsma back, however, would also be predicated on the expectation that systems are simplified and skill is valued. If those changes are not made the Penguins are ripe for a new coach.
Guest column by Ryan Wilson, who is a writer for Hockeybuzz and founder of HockeyHurts.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Gunnerstaal