The hiring of the Penguins' 19th coach

When he removed the interim tag from Dan Bylsma's title, Penguins GM Ray Shero put a target on the coach's back because in the NHL a hiring is just a firing away

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Baseball managers are hired to be fired, maybe you've heard a couple (billion) times, but that's not the case with hockey coaches; hockey coaches are hired to be tortured, humiliated, backstabbed and scapegoated,then fired.

So you may receive with varying levels of bemusement the news that the Penguins yesterday "removed the interim tag" or "lifted the interim tag" from coach Dan Bylsma.

Sorry, that's not a tag, interim coach.

That's a tattoo.

And sure, Bylsma wears it awfully well, being that he's 18-3-4 since succeeding Michel Therrien Feb. 15, 22-5-4 if you count the six-game dismissal of the Philadelphia Flyers completed over the weekend, 30-5-4 if you count the eight-game winning streak he was on directing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton baby birds when Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero rang him up one cold winter night and asked how he'd like to take over a capsized vessel.

Now, with a new multiyear contract that Shero joked was likely longer than any Bylsma signed as a hard-working, marginally talented NHL checker and penalty-killer, with a locker room of talented, admiring players at his disposal, with an extended expedition into these Stanley Cup playoffs the urgent business at hand, the newest coach is perfectly set up.

To be fired next spring.

"He got guys excited about playing hockey again," winger Pascal Dupuis was saying yesterday. "He's one of those guys that really reads the game well. His door is always open."

In no coincidental way, this brings us to the heart of it, doesn't it?

Bylsma's figurative door is always open, while Therrien's had a locked screen, a hand-lettered KEEP OUT sign, and a rusty pen of howling pit bulls pulling at their chains. Funny, last spring at this time, with the Penguins having wasted the Ottawa Senators and about to blow through the New York Rangers and Flyers on their way to the Stanley Cup final, complaints seemed few.

When Detroit ended that run, Shero signed Therrien to a two-year extension, but he didn't remove the tattoo. No one ever does.

Bill Guerin, acquired by Shero to be Sidney Crosby's linemate less than three weeks after he fired Therrien, is with his eighth organization and has played for, by my unofficial count, 17 coaches. He joined a franchise that has changed coaches nine times since last winning the Cup in 1992. He knows better than probably anyone in the room that any team's relationship with its coach has all the emotional stability of a junior high romance.

"I was talking to Mike Keenan about it," Guerin told me yesterday. "I consider Mike Keenan [who coached him in Boston] a friend, and we really talked about this at length. He admitted to me that players are changing, that players don't respond to that bully approach anymore. For him to go from the way he was to how he is now, I think proves it."

Keenan, who did not earn the "Iron Mike" label for his open-door policy, who won more than 1,400 games and a Stanley Cup in this league without being able to hold a job (he's with his eighth club, Calgary), can blame few for that beyond the guy in the mirror. But while even a tinder box like Keenan twice was able to last four years in one locker room, none of the Penguins' previous 18 coaches has. Not one of 'em.

This time, things might be different, you'd hope, because Bylsma seems like the right coach for the time and the right coach for these Penguins.

"Players always complain if a coach says, 'Hi,' to them one day and the next, he'll walk right past them in the hallway without saying a word," Guerin said. "Nowadays, you just kind of don't respect that. If there's a problem, as a player, you just want to hear about it. Players don't want to be ignored, don't want to be embarrassed in front of their teammates, and, when you treat them like that, you're gonna get more out of your players.

"I've found it really enjoyable playing for [Bylsma]. He was always described as a good teammate and he knows what guys respond to. He's not out to embarrass anybody, but he can be hard on guys. He knows what he's doing."

There's little evidence to suggest otherwise, just as there is little evidence that Shero has pushed a wrong button since arriving in Pittsburgh three years ago next month. He acquired Marian Hossa in a swashbuckling deadline trade a year ago and nearly won the Cup. He snatched Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams at the deadline last month, three weeks after turning the room over to someone who never had been a head coach in the NHL.

"I've been exposed to a lot of great coaches through my father [Cup-winning coach and general manager Fred Shero] and through the years in the NHL," Ray Shero said yesterday. "I think at this point in the history of the league experience is overrated. It's more important to be someone who can communicate with players and who can earn their trust. "In Dan's situation, you walk into a room and you see 25 skeptical hockey players. But it didn't take long for them to start believing in what they saw.

"It just became more and more evident that Dan was the guy I wanted moving forward, so I just thought, 'Why wait?' "

Inexperienced as he is, even Bylsma knows that hockey GMs generally ask the same question when they're about to "go in another direction."

I hope he coaches the Penguins in their new building. His chances? About 50-50.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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