SOCHI, Russia – I’m fond of Dan Bylsma. A lot of us are. He’s a guy who exudes the patriotism and rectitude that we want from anyone trying to fit Herb Brooks’ suit as a gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey coach. He’s a players’ coach, on and off the ice.
If likeability were an Olympic event, Bylsma would win gold. Alas, it’s not. Hockey is. And Bylsma’s team won a participation ribbon in Sochi, after looking like a gold medalist over the first four games of the tournament.
Simply put, Bylsma oversaw the worst 24 hours in recent memory for American hockey. It began with a humbling 1-0 defeat to arch rival Canada on Friday night, costing the U.S. a gold or a silver; it culminated with a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Finland, earning the Americans a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Winter Games.
“We’re going home empty-handed with some pretty high expectations and high hopes coming into here a couple weeks ago. To leave on this note is pretty ugly,” understated captain Zach Parise.
“I think the [Canada] game took a lot out of us,” said Zombie Bylsma in a low-key postgame press conference. “Took a lot out of us emotionally.”
More to the point, Max Pacioretty said: “We didn’t show up. We let our country down. That’s it.”
When assigning blame for a loss on a coach, a journey on which we’re about to embark on here, there’s one thing that needs to be sussed out:
What’s the players’ fault vs. what’s the coach’s fault?
For example: It’s not on Dan Bylsma that Patrick Kane beat Tuukka Rask twice on penalty shots and failed to convert on both chances in the bronze medal game.
Except maybe instead of the guy that’s 1-for-11 in the shootout this season for the Chicago Blackhawks, he opts for Zach Parise, who is 3-of-8 for Minnesota this season and is second among active players in the NHL with 35 career shootout goals.
(Bylsma had the option on Kane’s first penalty shot, as any player on the ice at the moment when Kimmo Timonen shoved a broken stick at Ryan Kesler was eligible.)
But that’s a quibble about a specific personnel decision. The problems for Bylsma in this tournament are grander than that.
The team that David Poile and the USA Hockey braintrust built was the team that we saw in the first four games of the tournament. It was fast and dynamic and used the larger ice to perfection, scoring 20 goals in four games. The young, mobile defense – you have no home here, Keith Yandle! – was active and effective. Phil Kessel had eight points; his running mate James van Riemsdyk had five. Team USA was carrying the play, setting the tempo; hell, they had a track meet with the Russians and T.J. Oshie’d their way to victory.
Let’s be real: That team left the tournament moments before puck drop against the Canadians.
The one we watched in the last two games was nearly its antithesis: Passive where it used to be aggressive; conservative where it used to be daring; playing the underdog where it used to be the frontrunner.
This speaks directly to coaching. The Canada game was the nadir of Bylsma’s tournament, a complete misfire in gameplan, execution and adaptation. Yes, the score was 1-0; but watching it, the semifinal was the largest margin of victory in a 1-goal game I’ve ever seen.
Here’s how Mike Babcock got his team ready for the Americans: By slowly building, game-by-game, a team that wasn’t going to panic if its offense was stagnant and content with shutting down the opposition. It was a patient, puck possession team by the time the U.S. saw them.
Here’s how Dan Bylsma got his team ready for Canada: By playing four games of overwhelming offense, and then taking a hairpin left turn towards passive, counterpunching defense in the semifinal. It was like training every day to sing Mariah at your “American Idol” audition and opting to warble Nickelback instead.
As Dejan Kovacevic noted, the Americans played a 1-2-2 defense for the majority of the game. They had used it previously when the team was holding onto a lead, but against Canada it was their sole gameplan.
It was a decision that practically raised the white flag, one that had the Americans genuflecting in front of the reigning gold medalists. It screamed “we can’t hang with you, so we’re going to forgo anything that might put a scare into you offensively, hang here and hope you screw up at some point so we can score.”
How else to explain the passive, on the edges offense? How else to explain home-run passes from the defense rather than puck possession up ice, just to keep them in position to handle the next Canadian rush?
Parise, after the Finland game, called out that strategy as a reason why the Americans failed to score in their last two games.
“It just felt like a lot of times, especially last night, we would forecheck with one guy. We were passive. We weren’t getting up the ice. We were making it pretty easy for them to break out of the zone,” he said.
During the Canada game, there was no deviation from the plan from Bylsma. Any tweaks to the lines came too late in the game; Canada exposed the U.S. as a one-line team, and its offense was punchless with JVR and Kessel neutralized.
Contrast that with Babcock, who threw his line combinations in a hat several times during the tournament. One of the ones he rebuilt – Jamie Benn, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – had the game-winner against the U.S.
Lines were stagnant, and matched with the Canadians’. The defense remained un-activated, despite one of the Americans’ best chances coming from John Carlson in the first period. No adjustments. No evolution of the strategy.
Nor was there any against Finland, against whom Bylsma iced the same lineup and lines from the Canada game. (Thanks for showing up, Derek Stepan; maybe in another four years…)
Here we get away from tactical failings and into the realm of motivation. Know who else had a devastating loss in the semifinals? Finland. And yet Teemu Selanne stood before his team prior to the game and begged them to play their asses off, because then at least they can leave Sochi knowing, win or lose, that they did.
If that sentiment was shared by Bylsma or his staff, it didn’t resonate. The “gold or bust” mentality that USA Hockey has borrowed from the Canadians bred apathy. You could use one hand to count the Americans who had average-to-good games against Finland: Kane, Parise, Kesler, Quick and Cam Fowler.
“There was absolutely no part of anyone, that I believe, that didn’t want to go into this game and win a bronze medal,” said Bylsma.
Does anyone really buy that?
I supported Bylsma’s selection as U.S. Olympic hockey coach, even though at the time of his hiring he had coached as many international tournament games as I had. But the way this thing ended just seems to speak to the criticisms of Bylsma when he got the gig, and to his time as the Penguins’ head coach.
Tournament appearances ending in spectacular flameouts? You mean like three straight losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals? Or a 5-1 loss to Philly in Game 6 of the 2012 quarters, following three straight losses to start the series? Or a sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the conference finals last season, with Claude Julien outcoaching Bylsma?
But the players love him, so he stays with the Penguins. But management has questions about him, so they install Jacques Martin to coach the defense, and the results have been stellar (at least in the regular season). Because, maybe, Bylsma needs the help.
Like his players, I’m fond of Dan Bylsma. A lot of us are. It’s what insulates him from getting the brunt of the criticism when his teams collapse.
But in the last 24 hours, he’s been outcoached. He overthought things. And he was overwhelmed at the most critical juncture of this tournament.
His team lost its identity, lost to Canada and then lost its dignity. He and his staff have to take responsibility for that.