Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma was one of the best stories in hockey last season: The minor league coach who turned his team's fortunes around, led them to the Stanley Cup and introduced the world to lucky burritos.
I spoke with Bylsma recently about the pressure of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups; the competition between Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes), and whether it's healthy for the team; whether NHL players should compete in the Olympics; and coming to terms with being a champion.
Q. What are your main concerns right now when you're trying to win back-to-back Stanley Cups as a coach?
BYLSMA: I think there is history that says teams have a hard time getting focused; teams aren't as motivated or there is some hangover -- a Stanley Cup hangover. But I think each situation is unique.
I think you don't want to talk too much about the past. If you're improving, if you're getting better you want to look back and say that we're getting better, and that this is a process and this is a new year. A lot of coaches have a standpoint where they look back and say 'We've won.' They are worried about that kind of focus. For our team with our young players, a lot of our players think they are going to be better in the future. I think their best years are ahead of them. And they have goals that they want to achieve. And that means that they have to get better.
While we did win the Stanley Cup, we are trying to focus on the future. With the group that we have, two of our harder battlers in [in the preseason are] Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And that says a lot about where they are headed as individuals. They are the guys driving our team.
As a coach, do you see a competition between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? Is this healthy for the team?
I think you do see that. And I think it's been a healthy one.
When you see two very, very good players who are used to running the power play, being the best guy, being the go-to guy, who scored the most points - that's who they want to be for their team. We have two of them growing up being that way, wanting to be that way. They are the go-to guy. They want to have the puck on their stick. They want the power play to go through them. That's been something, when one guy starts playing really well, the other guy is motivated to up his game.
Also at times when the other guy is not playing so well, or when the other guy has gotten injured -- and we saw that before when Geno really stepped up taking his game to another level. So I think they feed off each other, they are very competitive.
The one thing that's great in our situation is that it's not to the detriment of the team. They are both team players. They both want their team to win. Yes, they are competitive. But they want the best for the team. And when the other guy does well, the other one is happy. It is more motivating, there is a competition.
But the most telling thing is when last year we were getting deeper in the playoffs, Geno's image of the playoffs was that he wanted to have a picture of him and Sid holding the Stanley Cup. So, there is a competition, and they want to be the guy the puck goes to, and they want to be the guy who scores. But they also want to be together winning Stanley Cups and being a good team.
As a coach, how worried are you about the Olympic break?
I don't worry about things too much that the other teams have to go through too. I'd be concerned about it, think about it and make adjustments on it, but a lot of the other teams have to go through the same thing.
But you're actually delegating two of the best players in the world.
Yeah, but most of the other teams are doing one or two of their better players. There is a concern when one or two or three of these players play in the gold medal game, and then we play very, very shortly thereafter, and what that means for them.
But, again, a lot of other teams' players are in the same situation. I hope we have that problem. I hope our good players are in the gold medal game. I hope we have one or two guys in that game because I know all our guys want to go there and represent their countries well and win a gold medal. So, that's a problem I'll take.
Do you think it's good for the games for NHL players to participate in the Olympics? Alex Ovechkin came out and said he'd play in Sochi no matter what. Do you think this will be a problem?
You know, I haven't given it a lot of thought. But I do believe that to have the best players competing against each other is what would be the best. And, speaking from the past years, when all those good players get on the ice you want to watch. You hope for the gold medal game to see 40 of the best players in the world on the ice competing against each other. And there will be a story that we will all remember. I'd look forward to it more if the best players were there.
So, you think it will help the game worldwide? It will promote the game?
I think so. I love the fact that our pro-players are playing in the Olympic Games. I loved watching the past three Olympics.
Did you get over the stress of winning the Stanley Cup? Or is it still like a dream?
It's a little bit surreal when you go home at night and you can't quite believe you're doing it -- you're going to Game 7, you're in the Stanley Cup Finals. When you're at the rink, when you're behind the bench, when you're with your team you know you're in it.
The competition, the anxiety, the importance of each game. And then you go home at night and you pinch yourself and say ‘I can't quite believe that it's me behind the bench coaching Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar(notes), Jordan Staal(notes) ...' I think it's almost like you're two people. You're the one that's in the action with your team behind the bench. And then you kind of sit at home shaking your head thinking ‘I can't believe what's really happening. I can't believe I am a Stanley Cup winner.'
It's almost two worlds.