Ron Cook: First move? Give Bylsma an extension


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Dan Bylsma talked Sunday as if he knows he will be coaching the Penguins next season. He flat said of Marc-Andre Fleury, "He's our No. 1 goalie. He will be going forward. ... He's going to play great. There's no question about that. He's going to win a lot of hockey games for this team." Bylsma went on to say that Tomas Vokoun will return to his backup role next season. It's hard to believe he went public with that information without approval from general manager Ray Shero. Actually, it's hard to believe Shero didn't tell him to say it considering Bylsma had no confidence in Fleury in these playoffs and played him in relief in just one of 11 games after benching him for Vokoun after Game 4 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders.

Bylsma, whose job security has been the No. 1 topic around town since the Penguins were eliminated Friday night by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final, said he had not talked to Shero about his future. That's also hard to believe. Shero was unavailable for comment because of a personal situation and won't address the media until Wednesday. It won't be surprising if he announces a contract extension for Bylsma, who's believed to have one year left on his current deal. No one wants a coach in that situation.

Extending -- not firing -- Bylsma will be the right thing for Shero to do.

It's easy to blame Bylsma for the Penguins' almost unbelievable four-game crash-and-burn against the Bruins, their most disappointing playoff defeat since the 1993 team was beaten in the second round by the Islanders. It's always easy to blame the coach. It's especially easy for Penguins fans, who have been taught over the years that hockey coaches aren't important. Go back to the Mario Lemieux days. He never met a coach he liked or respected. Go back further to the start of the franchise in 1967. This season, Bylsma became its first coach to start and finish four consecutive seasons. That's almost laughable.

But history doesn't make it right to put all the blame on the coach. It would be different if the Penguins didn't play hard against the Bruins. But they were competitive in all but Game 2 and could have won any of the other three. Much of the time, they played superb hockey in Games 3 and 4. They just couldn't score.

Nor is it right to finger the coach because people are so reluctant to put blame where it really belongs -- on the players, especially the stars, who, in the Penguins' case, came up so small against the Bruins. Captain Sidney Crosby was awful and didn't have a point in the four games. Evgeni Malkin wasn't much better and didn't have a point. Kris Letang didn't have a point. James Neal didn't have a point. Jarome Iginla didn't have a point. Chris Kunitz had just one goal, one of two the team scored against the Bruins. Pascal Dupuis had one assist.

And it's Bylsma's fault that the Penguins lost?

That makes no sense.

Maybe Bylsma can be blamed for the ineffectiveness of the power play, which went 0 for 15 against Boston. Maybe he could have played Iginla on the left side of the first unit, although Iginla looked very much like a washed-up player. Maybe Bylsma could have used Paul Martin on the point on the first unit, although he acknowledged Sunday that Martin played the final two games with "a significant injury."

Or maybe not.

"We probably had more chances than we did in other series," Crosby said of the offense in general and the power play in particular. "I don't feel like we were shut down. When the chances are there, how do you justify changing anything?

"There's only so much the coaches can do. As players, we need to execute. We're responsible for not finding a way to win."

That seemed to be the sentiment Sunday in every corner of the Penguins' room. There was this from Letang: "We have a great staff. The whole organization, from head to toe, is world-class." And this from Douglas Murray: "The coaches prepared us more than you could ask for. There was great communication." And this final assessment from Crosby: "As players, we appreciate everything the coaches do to get us prepared. We were given every opportunity to be successful. I think everyone in here will tell you we're pretty fortunate to have that group."

I know what you're thinking: No one is going to publicly criticize his coach. But even in off-the-record conversations, the Penguins were supportive of Bylsma. Know this about hockey players: They whine and complain about their coach more than players in other sports. They can be a vicious, back-stabbing bunch. But not these players. Not about Bylsma.

"Us players have to take ownership for what we didn't accomplish," Dupuis said.

"It's frustrating. It [ticks] you off," Murray said. "To be honest, I was still very confident we were going to win the series going into Game 4 because of the team we had."

"I thought we were going to win it with five seconds left [in Game 4]!" Dupuis said. "I thought we were going to tie it up, win in overtime and come back and win the series."

Dupuis' eyes were red and teary. He said he hadn't slept much since the final loss. He probably took it harder than anybody. He knew, as he stood in the room Sunday, his days with the Penguins might be done. He's expected to get big offers as a free agent next month.

Murray also took the sweep hard.

"This is going to sting a little more in the future," he said. "I saw this as a great opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. Right now, I see it as a big failure."

There's no question the Penguins' season was that. But the players have only themselves to blame. They wasted a wonderful chance. The coach didn't sabotage them.

Shero should bring back Bylsma with that extension.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published June 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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