Published March 29, 2011
Just how has Dan Bylsma steered the Pittsburgh Penguins through a Class 5 rapid of a season without flipping the raft?
"I think the biggest thing is how positive he is and energetic," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik told NHL.com. "You get to the rink in the morning and he's got music blasting, he's doing cartwheels in (the locker room). That's not an exaggeration, either."
Locker-room gymnastics might not come from the first chapter of the Coaching 101 textbook, but Bylsma has made it work, and despite a hellacious amount of injuries, suspensions and myriad other distractions, the Penguins never have slipped in the standings and their coach never has wavered in his commitment to playing a certain way. It's why he's one of the first names mentioned when people discuss the candidates for this season's Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL's best coach.
"Guys come in, guys come out, and that's the beauty of real good coach," Penguins GM Ray Shero told NHL.com. "You play a certain style no matter who's in the lineup. Guys have asked if you've changed your style without (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), but we haven't. We're still playing the same way -- good penalty kill, good goaltending. It's nice to see."
The Penguins have dressed 39 different players this season, with 37 getting on the ice, third-most in the League, but all anyone can talk about are the big two. Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 due to a concussion and is questionable to return at all this season, and Malkin's season ended Feb. 4 due to torn knee ligaments.
But since Crosby went out, the Pens have gone 19-11-5, which includes an 11-8-4 mark without Malkin. They've stayed right on the heels of the Atlantic Division- and Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers, by going 8-2-2 in March, including a 2-1 shootout win in Philadelphia on Thursday that saw the Pens hold the Flyers to a season-low 20 shots. They clinched a playoff berth the next day, and will have a chance to pull even with Philadelphia in points when the teams meet Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
"I know a lot of people wrote when those guys got hurt you're going to have to change your system, you're going to have to play a trap and play defensively and win games 1-0, but that never came up in any of the meetings," Orpik said. "You're aware when those two guys aren't playing. Obviously you'd like to have them, but that never changed, systematically. The meetings that we have without those guys and the games without those guys, it never changed one bit. I think that was something that surprised a lot of people."
Not only have the Pens survived the losses of Crosby and Malkin, but they've also played without key forwards Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Mike Comrie and Mark Letestu, as well as top defensemen Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Orpik. In fact, only two players have dressed for all 76 games -- All-Star defenseman Kris Letang and forward Maxime Talbot.
And then there was the invasion of HBO cameras for the four-week "24/7" series leading up to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, plus long-term suspensions handed to Eric Godard and Matt Cooke for on-ice issues.
It all added up to a season that easily could have gone off the rails. But Bylsma never allowed it to happen.
"He's really good at keeping the distractions out of the room and just focusing on the things we can focus on," Orpik said. "He doesn't let you get frustrated with the injuries or maybe what the media or other people are saying about us. He keeps everyone in here focused on what's going on in here and the things we can control."
That's something that started right when Bylsma took over. When Shero hired him to replace Michel Therrien on Feb. 15, 2009, the Penguins were in disarray, sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference one season after making the Stanley Cup Final.
Bylsma, who was just 55 games into his first season as coach of the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, arrived in Long Island the night before his first NHL game. As Shero remembers, it wasn't the most auspicious of beginnings, and not because the Penguins lost to the Islanders in that first game.
"It was a 2 p.m. game on a Monday, he came up the night before after the (AHL) game," said Shero. "No skate, just a meeting with the players about 10 o'clock (in the morning). He spoke for about 4-5 minutes about how we're going to play. Guys are like, 'Is this the guy that was in camp with us?'"
What's remembered from that point is Bylsma and the Penguins' magical run to the franchise's third Stanley Cup. And while hiring Bylsma now looks like a genius decision, Shero admits he was as surprised as the rest of the public at the job Bylsma did.
"I didn't have a lot options," Shero said. "We were in the middle of the year (when he fired Therrien). ... When you make a decision like that on Feb. 15 to let go of your coach, timing is everything and the timing fell for Dan Bylsma."
Shero said the day after the Islanders game he talked to Bylsma about a contract for the rest of the season, and assured him that regardless of how the rest of the season went, the young coach had a guaranteed job with the team.
"I said, Dan, I don't know how this is going to go, but you've got your job back in Wilkes-Barre, don't worry," Shero said. "I hired you to do a job in Wilkes-Barre. Let's hope for the best and see what happens. The goal is to make the playoffs and see what happens."
The Pens went an astounding 18-3-4 under Bylsma and finished fourth in the conference. They beat the Flyers in six games in the first round, survived a memorable seven-game battle with the Washington Capitals and then swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference finals. They finished their run with a seven-game defeat of the Detroit Red Wings to win the Cup.
"After we won the Cup," said Shero, "he said, 'Can I tear up that contract now?'"
Last season the Penguins went 47-28-7, again finishing fourth in the conference, and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. And on Jan. 5, Crosby's last game to date, the Penguins were 26-12-3 and led the Eastern Conference.
Despite his success, some have questioned Bylsma's ability as a coach. Come on -- how hard can it be when you can send Crosby and Malkin over the boards every other shift, right?
"Back in the 70s, people used to say Scotty Bowman had the easiest job in the world when he coached the (Montreal) Canadiens," Shero said. "My father (legendary Flyers coach Fred Shero) said he's the best coach because it's hard to coach those players, with the expectations for ice time. It's not as easy to coach the star or superstar players."
But dealing with players -- whether they're superstars or AHL call-ups -- is Bylsma's strength.
"To be successful you have to get across to different personalities and different people," Shero said. "You need to be good with people, and he is."
This leads us back to the cartwheels.
"There's days you see that, and sometimes you're like, what the hell is he doing," Orpik said. "But it's something everyone feeds off in a positive way. There's a lot of days, with the grind and the travel and the schedule, and some days you're peeling yourself out of bed and coming to the rink half-awake. He definitely wakes you up and gets you going."
"I've seen him do a lot of different things," Staal told NHL.com. "He's a very energetic guy, he likes to get the guys going. That's just how he is. It's nice to see it because he's the head coach, but he's not shy to shake it up a bit and fire the guys up."
Staal said the energy put out by the coach is absorbed by the players.
"I think so," he said. "It's part of making it fun to go to the rink and hang out and work hard at the same time and do the right things, but have some fun with it. That definitely starts with the coaches all the way down to the players."
Shero also knows how good a coach he has, and got an inkling when he originally offered Bylsma the Penguins job.
"I remember the afternoon I called him, I talked to him for about five minutes and told him what was going on," Shero said. "I said I want you to talk to your wife and call me back. I said Dan, you don't have to do it. I'm going to offer it to you. You're a young coach, it's not a great situation now -- give it some thought and call me back. He called me back later and he said this opportunity might not come again. He said I'm going to do it and I'm going to do a good job for you.
"He got me out of a tough situation, obviously. It's been a nice story."
The story will go on a bit longer -- on March 9, Shero handed Bylsma a three-year contract extension that should keep him with the team through the 2013-14 season.
Keeping Bylsma the public face of the team is something Shero finds vital. A joint NHLPA/CBC poll of 318 players earlier this season saw Bylsma voted the coach most players would like to play for.
"Word gets around, what your coach is like. It's part of who you are (as a franchise)," Shero said. "Dan does a great job representing this organization and this team. We're lucky to have him as our coach. This year you can see it. People can finally see and recognize what a good coach he is, and how he gets it out of his players."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK