Hiring former Falcon Blysma saved Penguins' season
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Written by Sentinel-Tribune Staff
Tuesday, 02 June 2009 11:26
PITTSBURGH - What the Detroit Red Wings ask Pavel Datsyuk to do, the Penguins ask of Sidney Crosby. Be a star. Be yourself. Think big, but also remember it's the little things that win hockey games: Getting to the puck, backchecking, being a two-way player.
Call it the Mike Babcock influence upon former Bowling Green Falcon forward Dan Bylsma.
Bylsma didn't begin coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins until 31/2 months ago, yet he has them within four victories of the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 17 years.
But the Penguins face an almost must-win game tonight when the NHL Finals resume with Game 3 in Pittsburgh. The man Bylsma needs to out-coach is partly responsible for him being behind an NHL bench so soon after ending his playing career. The Red Wings hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Only six years ago, Bylsma was one of Babcock's forwards when Anaheim lost a seven-game finals against the Devils. Two years after that, Bylsma spent considerable time with Babcock while serving as an assistant coach of the Ducks' Cincinnati farm club during the NHL lockout season.
Now, Bylsma could become only the second rookie coach to take over a team during the season and win the Stanley Cup; only Al MacNeil of Montreal in 1971 has accomplished it to date.
Bylsma is a bit surprised it's happened so fast - a year ago, he was hoping merely to land an AHL head coaching job for this season - but Babcock isn't.
Bylsma was a role player during an NHL career in which he scored only 19 goals in 429 games, but Babcock saw him as a motivated, details-oriented athlete who didn't care only about winning, but also about what makes winning possible.
And it's same style that made him popular with the Falcons. He was a hard-working two-way forward, totaling 37 goals and 50 assists in 157 games from 1988-92. He remains the only Falcon ever to score a 3-on-5 short-handed goal.
"Danny's a good guy," said Babcock, who is in the finals for the third time in six years. "He's honest, he's hardworking, a quality guy who brought energy on a regular basis. He played on will and determination. He was a good team guy, he had a positive attitude all the time."
Or exactly what the 38-year-old Bylsma asks of his players - and, yes, much like Babcock's Red Wings, he asks not only Max Talbot and Craig Adams to do the dirty work, but also Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Still, it's easy to forget as the Red Wings and Penguins play in the finals how desperate the Penguins' straits were when Bylsma replaced the fired Michel Therrien on Feb. 15.
Bylsma felt fortunate merely to be in position to get the job. Todd Richards almost certainly would have been hired instead, but he left Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) after last season to become a San Jose assistant and was replaced by Bylsma.
Therrien oversaw the Penguins' transformation from one of the NHL's worst teams in 2005-06 to a Stanley Cup finalist last season, but his autocratic ways with players were wearing thin. Players were confused by their roles, and the offense was suffering because of the constant emphasis on not making mistakes in a defense-driven system.
Bylsma, who has a studious, professional demeanor and has co-written several sports books with his father, was certain the Penguins needed to get back to doing what they do best. While refusing to criticize Therrien for what went wrong, he implemented an aggressive, puck-control style designed to keep the opponent under constant pressure and create numerous scoring chances for Crosby and Malkin.
The coaching change saved the Penguins' season. They were 27-25-5 before Bylsma took over, but went 18-3-4 during a closing stretch that included the best road trip and best homestand in franchise history. Counting the playoffs, the Penguins are 30-8-4 under Bylsma.
Asked what turned the season around, center Jordan Staal said, "What do you think?" - as if any answer other than the coaching change would be farcical.
Bylsma was told by general manager Ray Shero upon being promoted he would be evaluated once the season ended. However, Bylsma's impact was so immediate, he was given a multiyear contract shortly after the playoffs began.
"I always said I'm going to act like the head coach and pretend I'm going to be the head coach in the future, and we'll let it play out on the ice," said Bylsma, whose Mellon Arena office door never contained the word interim.