Before the Penguins even lost Game 7 against the Rangers this year, rumors were already swirling that Dan Bylsma, head coach for the Penguins, was running on borrowed time. Once they lost, rumors of Bylsma’s firing had gone from rumors to foregone conclusions.
But is that the right move, or premature? It would certainly make some fans happy, but it may not be the best move for the Penguins.
The fact of the matter is, Dan Bylsma is a good coach. Under him the Penguins have had excellent regular seasons for five years in a row. He was a Jack Adams winner in 2011. He was chosen to lead Team USA at the 2014 Olympics and lead them to some great victories, most notably the famous shootout win over Russia. This year he not only became the fastest coach in NHL history to get to 250 wins, but he lead a Penguins team that was absolutely ravaged by injury to finishing the Eastern Conference second only to the Bruins, who won the President’s Trophy.
Bylsma certainly has his shortcomings, though. Most notably, he tends to favor players with experience over players with skill, often to the detriment of training new talent. This, especially with an aging Pens offensive core, is a worry. And when things go wrong under Bylsma, games don’t just go a little wrong, they go very wrong.
Still, Bylsma is a high-caliber coach, and replacing coaches like that is difficult. Few coaches are consistently better than him, and most of those coaches are happily installed elsewhere. There have been some rumors swirling that Mike Babcock (of the Detroit Red Wings and Team Canada in the Sochi Olympics) may be interested in the position, and that would be a suitable replacement. But unless that’s true, most likely whoever took over coaching from Bylsma would be a downgrade in terms of skill when you consider who is available on the market.
Those who don’t like Bylsma would say that his regular-season success means very little when considering his lack of post-season success, and it’s true that the two years the Penguins went out in the first round were unacceptable. However, in the past two years Bylsma has lead his team past the first round, including last year when they went to the conference final.
Moreover, I don’t subscribe to the idea that the only way to have a successful season is to win the Cup. All things being equal, each team has a 3.33% chance of winning the Cup at the outset of any year, and that’s assuming that all teams have an equal chance. It’s true that the Penguins always have a greater chance with talent like Crosby and Malkin leading them, but winning the Cup is never likely, or something any fanbase should take for granted. What can and should be expected of the Penguins in a Crosby/Malkin era is that they are perennial strong contenders. It’s safe to think that, if both Crosby and Malkin are healthy, the team should be able to make it to at least the second round. Both of these are things that Bylsma has, with pretty good consistency, achieved. But to expect a Cup dynasty and to lay that at the feet of any coach is an extremely tall order.
Naysayers may point to the Lemieux/Jagr era of Pittsburgh sports and try to draw a parallel between them and Crosby/Malkin, but they played in a very different time. The salary cap, for example, did not exist back then, meaning that teams could load up on good players and didn’t have to worry about balancing a team while also balancing the salaries of two major stars. Naysayers might also point to Stan Bowman and Joel Quenville’s Chicago Blackhawks as a growing dynasty with two superstars, but their dynasty may be short-lived – both Kane and Toews’ contracts will be up after next season and both will no doubt be looking for raises, which may put the integrity of the rest of the team in jeopardy. The Blackhawks also don’t have a singular defensive superstar like Kris Letang, whose salary makes balancing a team even harder. Mathematics simply make crafting a Stanley Cup-winning roster extremely difficult, and as any hockey fan can tell you, good rosters and good coaching are not enough to win the Stanley Cup alone. If they were, after all, wouldn’t the St. Louis Blues still be in the playoffs right now? What’s really needed to get far in the playoffs is a heavy dose of luck, which the Penguins have been short on for years. They ran especially short this year, between injuries and facing two Vezina-winning goaltenders in the first two rounds, one of whom all but stole a win from under them.
The real question that no sports pundit knows the answer to, no matter how much they claim to, is this: has Bylsma lost the room? Because that is the only question that matters. No coach, no matter how good they are, can lead a team once they’ve lost them. Losing the faith of the players in the room is the best and, probably, the only real metric of when a coach should or should not be let go. And as much as sports media can speculate and claim to know what goes on in a locker room, the fact is, no one really knows what’s happening with the Penguins behind closed doors. And unless we know that, it’s hard to know whether it’s time to replace Dan Bylsma or not.