Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma has a Costco-sized container of goodwill stored up, collected over the last few years from media and fans.
While many of his peers are inarticulate oafs, Bylsma is a personable and intelligent interview. He’s seen as being in control of his team but not in a tyrannical way – hired as the anti-Michel Therrien in 2009, this persona was reinforced by the favorable editing on “HBO 24/7” two years ago. His journey from being a interim coach to a Stanley Cup and Jack Adams winner is still a hockey fable many revisit.
He’s gotten results, too: 183 wins in 293 regular-season games, many of them played without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, as well as a dozen other significant injuries that have befallen this team. Bylsma is the rare coach who gets respect for both leading a frontrunner – the Penguins have not finished below second place in the Atlantic under his watch – and coaching an "underdog" when his team is decimated by injuries (see: MacLean, Paul).
Where he hasn’t gotten results: When it counts the most.
Since the Penguins captured the Cup in 2009, Bylsma’s teams have won three playoff series. There was a six-game win over the Ottawa Senators in 2010, before the upstart Montreal Canadiens ousted them in seven games in the next round, in a series in which Bylsma was outcoached by Jacques Martin.
In 2011, Bylsma was outcoached by Guy Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Penguins in seven games.
In 2012, Bylsma’s Penguins lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in six chaotic games.
In 2013, Bylsma’s Penguins won their two other playoff series – a 1-vs.-8 battle with the New York Islanders and then another win over the Senators – before getting swept out of the postseason by the Boston Bruins in humbling fashion.
Before the Boston sweep, Bylsma was 20-17 in the playoffs since winning the Cup as a freshman coach. Now he's under .500.
But the reason his job is in jeopardy is not the number of postseason losses, but how the Penguins have lost them.
Bylsma’s first spot of trouble came in 2011 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing three straight games to the Bolts and goalie Dwayne Roloson. The caveat was that neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin played in the series; hence, the loss didn’t linger for Bylsma.
The Flyers series the following postseason, however, was a travesty. The Penguins transformed into a petulant group obsessed with pettiness and score-settling, allowing Philly to take control of the series with three opening wins by established the tone and tenor of the play on the ice.
"We may have given them too much respect and not done what we've been successful at all year,” said Bylsma after Game 3, the 8-4 nadir of the Penguins’ season.
That series started to fade from memory in the last two months, as the Penguins ousted a pesky Islanders team and humbled the Senators in Round 2, to the point where captain Daniel Alfredsson conceded defeat before the deciding game.
Then came the Boston Bruins.
There went the Pittsburgh Penguins in four straight games.
Again, we heard Bylsma talk about how the Penguins stopped doing the things that had made them successful all season. About how the Bruins dictated terms.
Again, the Penguins fell apart emotionally against a playoff opponent – equally, or superior, talented in comparison to their roster – and allowed the Bruins to goad them into physical battles and tough guy pissing matches. The end of the second period of Game 2 was every bit embarrassing as anything in the Flyers’ series in the previous year, from Crosby’s poke at Tuukka Rask to his silly stare-down with Zdeno Chara, which saw the man/mountain strain his neck to get in Crosby’s face as the altercation strained credibility.
For the second straight postseason, Bylsma let the reins slip on his team. In both series, he fumbled and bumbled and finally grabbed them again, only it was too late to guide the wagon train away from the cliff’s edge.
Bylsma’s defenders have been quick to mention a number of factors – goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s implosion, the lack of production from the Penguins’ stars or Ray Shero’s underwhelming deadline moves, in retrospect – in a “blame the bench, not the man behind it” argument to keep the coach. Ron Cook of the Post Gazette, for example, wants to see Bylsma extended:
Captain Sidney Crosby was awful and didn't have a point in the four games. Evgeni Malkin wasn't much better and didn't have a point. Kris Letang didn't have a point. James Neal didn't have a point. Jarome Iginla didn't have a point. Chris Kunitz had just one goal, one of two the team scored against the Bruins. Pascal Dupuis had one assist.
And it's Bylsma's fault that the Penguins lost? That makes no sense.
There’s plenty of blame that can be given to Bylsma and the coaching staff. The power play was comatose. The Penguins stars couldn’t break free from the Boston stoppers, despite having the last change in Games 1 and 2. Bylsma, for all the credit he gets from rolling with the punches, stubbornly kept top lines together that weren’t producing.
Face it: Bylsma was outcoached against the Flyers last season, and again against the Bruins this year. In both cases, he was left explaining how the Penguins stopped playing “their game” in a series, which is another way of saying their opponents found a way to prevent them from doing so and Bylsma didn’t have an answer.
(Yes, Bylsma deserves credit for sticking with Tomas Vokoun in Game 3 when others were calling for Marc-Andre Fleury. But one could argue the Penguins should have never been in that situation after two home losses.)
I don’t know if Dan Bylsma will be fired. The New York Post has been driving the narrative that Mario Lemieux might order the axe to fall, presumably because Larry Brooks would love to talk with Bylsma every day after years of admonishment from John Tortorella. We know Mario expects excellence. We know the bar is impossibly high in Pittsburgh. And we know that Bylsma hasn’t reached it since 2009.
You’ll read Bylsma’s defenders blame the players. Blame Shero. Blame other teams simply being better at this hockey thing than the Penguins were in a given playoff series. Blame injuries or goal posts or the Hockey Gods smiting Jarome Iginla.
They’ll justify Bylsma surviving this defeat because of his regular-season record or the lack of a true alternative that would improve upon the Penguins’ current fortunes. (A straw man argument if there ever was one; based on that thinking, Bylsma doesn’t get the job in the first place.)
All of it ignores a fundamental fact about Bylsma’s performance as Penguins coach: That in consecutive playoff eliminations, the Penguins haven’t just lost, they’ve come unhinged. The Flyers and Bruins are both guilty of identity theft: Pittsburgh looked like a completely different, completely ineffective team in both series defeats.
Another coach would be called out and on the firing line if his team's stars disappeared and his team's system failed in consecutive playoff seasons.
But we don't like other coaches like we like Dan Bylsma.
I like Dan Bylsma, too. He can coach any team in this league, and maybe even the U.S. national team in Sochi.
I just don’t think I like him for this job any longer.