Last NHL job: Pittsburgh Penguins head coach (2008-14)
Biggest accomplishments: 2009 Stanley Cup Champion, 2011 Jack Adams Award
NHL head coaching record: 252-117-32 (.668 win%)
Connection to Tim Murray: Played for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim during Murray's tenure as the Ducks' Director of Player Personnel
Dan Bylsma has won as many Stanley Cups -one- as Mike Babcock has in his career. Yet, there isn't exactly the same hyper-competitive arms race to land him. He has the strongest resume of any of the coaches currently available.
Bylsma's rise to an NHL head job was a rapid one, which is pretty apparent simply by his age. He began coaching in 2004 as an assistant with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL, before being promoted to an assistant job with the Islanders. New York's staff was canned at the end of the 2006 season when the Islanders brought in Ted Nolan, forcing Bylsma to return to the AHL.
He found a spot on the bench with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, serving as an assistant for two years before earning the head coach position in 2008. His time as a head coach in the AHL would be short lived. The Pittsburgh Penguins were seriously struggling under Michel Therrien, hovering just around .500 past the 50 game mark despite making it to the Stanley Cup the year prior. GM Ray Shero decided to make a change, firing Therrien and naming Bylsma the team's interim head coach. At the time he was the league's youngest bench boss.
The decision paid off big time. The Penguins went 18-3-4 down the stretch under Bylsma, earning the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. Shero took the interim tag off before the regular season even came to an end.
The Penguins defeated the Flyers in six games, the Capitals in seven, and then swept the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals to play the Red Wings in the Cup for the second season in a row. Coincidentally, Bylsma would defeat Mike Babcock for Bylsma's only Stanley Cup victory.
The series went seven games, as the Penguins came back from down 3-2 to win the title. Max Talbot was the hero, scoring both Penguins goals in their 2-1 victory. Bylsma was the second rookie coach to win the Cup, and the 14th mid-season replacement to do so.
Bylsma continued to get the Penguins to the playoffs each season he was behind the bench, which was more of an expectation that a success-story when you have two of the best players in the world on your team. However, he could never get the Penguins back to the big show. Pittsburgh lost in the first round twice, the second round twice, and the Eastern Conference Finals once.
Following the team's elimination in the second round by the Rangers in 2014 the Penguins decided to shuffle things around. Shero was fired, and original reports said that Bylsma was too. The Penguins refuted those reports rather quickly, deciding to keep Bylsma around to allow the new GM to decide whether or not to keep him.
The Penguins landed on former Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who decided to cut Bylsma loose after all. He replaced him with little-known Mike Johnston, who had coached the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL for the previous six seasons.
Bylsma sat out off hockey this season, but according to him he stayed busy. Bylsma visited the NHL Network and discussed how he'd been studying analitics in his free time.
"There are some analytic aspects of the game that I'm looking at and delving into what the numbers mean, what the analytics mean," Bylsma said. "There are certain aspects of how some teams play that I want to dissect and breakdown."
Bylsma most recently served as an assistant for the United States at the World Championships, getting a great look at future Sabre Jack Eichel. The Americans sent an incredibly young group, not inviting seasoned Americans like Phil Kessel or Zach Parise. Eichel was arguably the team's most talented forward. Yet the team still managed to bring home the bronze medal.
It's now no secret that the Sabres are interested. Craig Custance of ESPN reports that the Penguins have given Buffalo permission to talk to Bylsma. Tim Murray wouldn't confirm in his interview with WGR yesterday, but he did have a tremendously long pause before answering.
The San Jose Sharks have also asked permission to speak to Bylsma, although at this point the Penguins have pretty much said that no one needs to ask them anymore. There is the obvious connection to New Jersey and Shero, but there haven't been many rumblings about the possibility of him landing there. The Devils have been very quiet, with the only real information being that they are heavily interested in Guy Boucher.
Q&A with a Penguins expert
1. How would you describe Bylsma's coaching style?
Dan Bylsma has a good mix of both technical and relationship based coaching, I would say. Bylsma's main tenets include "north-south hockey." He likes defensemen to make quick, long stretch passes to forwards. Or did, anyways, we'll see if he adjusts at all to his new team, which could be possible. He likes a cycle game and keeping the puck out of his zone as much as possible (but then again who doesn't, right?)
Many defensemen have talked in depth about the complicated retrievals that Bylsma uses. Most wouldn't say if his ways were necessarily good or bad, but certainly that there was a significant learning curve. To me, I think Bylsma made the minute details of hockey very, very complicated, very regimented and very structured.
But, to his credit, when the system was on, it piled up wins. Even when the Pens suffered many injuries, his bare bones teams would always compete and usually win, due to the system working. However - when teams figured out how to jam up that system - it crumbles. It doesn't seem like he has a lot of answers or can make correctable adjustments in the flow when things go wrong. It's a great system that works well for the most part, though.
He also motivated the Pens with goofy things like a shootout practice on the first day of the month, where the last player who didn't score a goal would have to grow a mustache. And occasional off-ice trainings or on-ice "fun" like playing wiffle ball on skates, on the ice, where James Neal once pulled a muscle and was out a few weeks. Mostly harmless fun, but sometimes questionable.
2. What are his biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Bylsma's strengths are intelligence, he's very personable, and he has a great system when it's on. He is very perceptive, a student of the game and all those clichés and will improve any team's structure. He's a proven winner and a really good coach that has gotten more out of teams then he should have in the regular season.
His weaknesses are probably having too complicated and rigid of a system, and a perception that he could not adjust when things went wrong. Or, at least make effective adjustments. With a year off and time to digest and soak it all in, maybe he's changed his ways and will address some of these things that went wrong and led to his dismissal.
3. It seems that everyone discredits Bylsma's coaching record and Stanley Cup because he had Crosby and Malkin. Is that fair?
No, I don't think it's fair at all to discredit Bylsma for his role in the 2009 Cup run. The Penguins were in a rut with Michel Therrien, as soon as they got Bylsma they went 18-3-4 down the stretch and made the playoffs. He deserves a bit of credit for that, his strategies and fresh voice, combined with the defensive structure that Therrien had built made for a perfect mix. There's no doubt the Penguins that the Penguins would not have won the 2009 Stanley Cup without changing coaches. Bylsma deserves a lot of credit for jumping in and making an immediate turnaround.
4. He also gets much of the blame for the United States poor showing at the Olympics. They switched the spots around, with Richards at the help, for the Worlds, and then overachieved. How much stock should be put into his few games in Sochi?
Not much stock at all, in my opinion. Bylsma lost a one goal game to a Canadian team that may go down in history as one of the best, most talented and greatest teams ever. Then, they didn't show up at all in the bronze medal game, but I'm fairly dismissive of that. After a crushing loss, pros don't care about a bronze medal game. The Americans would have lost that bronze medal game no matter who the coach was.
I'm not too big on saying much one way or another based of the Olympics, aside from the unfortunate result that once again Bylsma led a team to a disappointing final result after a great start, which was certainly a trend in 2010. And 2012. And 2013. And 2014. (We'll give 2011 a pass since both Crosby/Malkin were hurt, but even then the team blew a 3-1 series lead so....)
5. What was the general sentiment among fans when he was fired?
The firing went down in a very strange way last spring, since the GM Ray Shero got canned first, and Bylsma hung in the wind for a few weeks until the Pens hired a new GM. Everyone with a clue knew Bylsma would be fired, so by the time it actually happened it was more of a relief for everyone to just move on.
Some segments of the Pens fanbase are still loyal to Bylsma - and after all he won 252 out of 401 regular season games as a head coach, he got 100+ points in every full season he coached and generally got sensational regular season results for what was often times a very injured team playing with spare parts in big roles.
However, a lot of fans recognize that almost any NHL coach are highly replaceable, disposable and temporary. Bylsma didn't bring postseason results, and had a nasty tendency to blow series leads with home ice advantage. For a team that had Crosby and Malkin in their scoring primes, the Pens really disappointed from 2010-14 in the playoffs by not even winning a single game in the Conference Finals.
Fair or not, head coaches take the fall for a lack of player performance and it was time to move on and try a new direction to hope for new results.
6. By the time he was hired in Pittsburgh Crosby had a few years experience under their belt and Malkin had one. How successful was Bylma at developing talent or was he more just plugging in established players?
Bylsma was no real friend of the younger player as a Penguin coach. First round picks like Simon Despres and Beau Bennett languished in the minors or in low-risk, high-sheltered, low TOI roles in the NHL. They were often benched at the first signs of mistakes, or to play older vets with little-to-nothing to offer. For instance, Craig Adams was never once made a healthy scratch under Bylsma.
Since Bylsma himself was a bottom-6 grinding winger as a player, a lot of people believe he might have a soft spot for players like Adams.
However, it's difficult to judge him too harshly, because of what players he had. The Pens often traded high picks away, it's not like they had a ton of young talent to play at the NHL (which was a problem of a whole different debate). Bylsma helped Jordan Staal, he put guys like James Neal and Kris Letang into places to succeed, though I don't really think it mattered who the coach was for guys that are that talented.
7. Pittsburgh took a bit of a step back this year with Johnston at the helm. Did the teams performance this year make people regret firing Bylsma?
No, not really much regret, but at the same time it doesn't look like we know about what we have in Johnston. The team took a step back this year because 4 of their top 5 best puck-moving defensemen were out for the playoffs. And, even then, they lost four 2-1 games to the Rangers. It wasn't like they were blown out by any means. Johnston had the Pens 2 points out of first place in March, despite some rocky times, but then once injuries really set in, the team was crippled no matter who the coach was.
If there is any regret, it is probably that the Penguins will not charge a 3rd round pick for Bylsma, which is their right if they wanted to, however since they didn't ask a division rival in New Jersey for a pick for Shero, they probably will just accept not paying Bylsma's salary and be happy to move on. That perturbs some fans that the Pens aren't going to get an extra pick (especially when they've traded away a 1st , 3rd and 4th this year) but at the end of the day a 3rd round pick isn't going to make or break anything.