Most of the Penguins needed a little time to be convinced that Dan Bylsma was the right man to coach their team.
A few weeks for some, a few days for others.
Not Matt Cooke.
Just minutes into the players' first meeting with Bylsma -- at a Long Island hotel on the morning of Feb. 16, perhaps 16 hours after Bylsma had replaced Michel Therrien as coach -- Cooke was struck by how his teammates were reacting to Bylsma and his message.
"When we met with him, guys wanted to go play, then and there," he said. "Guys felt inspired, fired up and wanted to go out and play."
The Penguins got a chance a few hours later. And proceeded to lose to the New York Islanders, who would finish the 2008-09 season with the National Hockey League's worst record, in a shoot-out.
An inauspicious start, to be sure, but also a rare misstep during Bylsma's first 2Â 1/2 months as coach.
The Penguins, 27-25-5 when he took over, went 18-3-4 in their final 25 regular-season games to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, then won a best-of-seven, opening-round series against Philadelphia in six games.
"He's done a great job," center Sidney Crosby said.
General manager Ray Shero obviously agrees because he rewarded Bylsma's performance by stripping the "interim" off his title yesterday.
Shero hadn't planned to finalize a decision on the team's next "permanent" coach until after the Penguins' playoff run, but concluded that Bylsma's performance had whittled the list of viable candidates to one.
"It just became more and more evident to me, clearer and clearer, that Dan was the guy I wanted to move forward with," Shero said. "I asked myself the question, 'Why wait?' Timing-wise, it felt like a good thing to do, the right thing to do."
Penguins officials would characterize Bylsma's contract only as "multiyear," but it covers three seasons. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Bylsma, 38, said this contract matches the longest he received as a blue-collar winger who played 429 NHL games with Los Angeles and Anaheim, accumulating 19 goals, 43 assists and 184 penalty minutes.
He was an assistant coach for Wilkes-Barre and Cincinnati of the American Hockey League as well as the New York Islanders of the NHL before succeeding Todd Richards as head coach of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre for the 2008-09 season.
Bylsma was 35-16-1-2 in 54 games with the Baby Penguins, his only head-coaching experience before being summoned here, and acknowledged that, when the season began, running an NHL bench was not on his list of short-term objectives. (Yes, he does have a list of those, updated annually. Same with long-term goals.)
"This certainly happened quicker than I expected or could have expected," Bylsma said. "Or anyone expected."
Perhaps, but players responded well to both the up-tempo style of play he introduced -- under Therrien, the Penguins had stuck to more conservative, defensive strategies -- and his positive approach to dealing with personnel.
Although Bylsma is willing to criticize them, players say, he does it in constructive ways and has instilled a confidence that is evident in their improved play.
"I don't want to single out too many guys, but, since the coaching change, you look at [20-year-old] Jordan Staal, he's been maybe our best player," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"He's really taken off since that point. That shows how much confidence is a factor in this league."
The Penguins have that in ample supply as they prepare for Round 2 of the playoffs. And they should, considering that they have not lost consecutive games in regulation in Bylsma's tenure.
"We haven't had much to complain about," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "But, even when things have gotten a little hairy or a little sticky, he's usually come in and said the right thing."
Cooke suggested that Bylsma's way of dealing with players stems from him having played in the NHL as recently as 2004, while Bylsma said numerous people have influenced the way he does his job.
"You should be taking something from everyone you meet," Bylsma said.
"And people you spend a lot of time with, you should be learning a lot from, growing with."
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published April 29, 2009 4:00 AM