Ron Cook: Fired Penguins coach was prepared for fall

It is early on Feb. 8. Dan Bylsma might not be on top of the hockey world, but he’s close to it as the NHL shuts down for three weeks for the Sochi Olympics. His Penguins are running away with the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, 16 points clear of the second-place New York Rangers. He’s at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, set to start his journey to Sochi, where he will coach the U.S. squad. In response to a message wishing him and the American team luck and a gold medal, Bylsma texts back, “We ready!”

February seems like a long time ago.

Bylsma’s U.S. team didn’t win gold, didn’t win any medal, actually. It lost a brutal 1-0 decision to Canada in the semifinals, then gave a lifeless performance in a 5-0 loss against Finland in the bronze-medal game. Bylsma’s Penguins held on to win the Metropolitan but never were the same team. They went 11-9-4 down the stretch, then were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Rangers despite winning three of the first four games. Bylsma officially was fired Friday after five-plus seasons, a Stanley Cup and the most regular-season and postseason wins in franchise history. The announcement had been expected since the team fired general manager Ray Shero three weeks earlier.

It is a long, hard fall from near the top of the world.

You can argue Bylsma had to go. Penguins president David Morehouse was right when he said the team “underachieved” in the past five playoffs after winning the Cup in 2009 in Bylsma’s first season. Hockey’s quick, easy answer always is to fire the coach. It’s much less messy than trying to get rid of those most responsible for the team’s failures, which, in the Penguins’ case, were star players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal and Kris Letang.

But that doesn’t mean Bylsma deserved to be fired. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that he should be remembered as anything but a successful coach here. He was wildly successful if only because he led the Penguins to that Cup in 2009.

It’s funny how much smarter Bylsma was back then. Crosby, Malkin and Fleury had strong playoff runs that year, Malkin’s so strong that he was voted Conn Smythe Award winner as postseason MVP. A coach — any coach — is only as good as his best players.

It’s popular now to say Bylsma won the Cup with Michel Therrien’s system after replacing Therrien in February 2009. You hear the same garbage about Steelers coach Mike Tomlin winning Super Bowl XLIII with Bill Cowher’s players. People forget the Steelers were 8-8 under Cowher the year before Tomlin took over, just as they forget the Penguins were well out of the playoff chase when Bylsma took over for Therrien. Bylsma wasn’t as responsible for the Cup as Malkin, Crosby and Fleury, but he deserves a lot of credit for getting that team back on track.

Bylsma’s critics are a lot quicker to blame him solely for the Penguins’ playoff failures. New general manager Jim Rutherford was the latest to pile on when he announced Bylsma’s firing and said he wanted the next coach to be better with in-game adjustments. Bylsma deserved better than that slam. It’s hard to understand why people can’t put blame where it truly belongs. Crosby, Malkin and the others can take it.

“There’s only so much the coaches can do,” Crosby said after the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final last season, scoring just two goals in large part because their power play went 0 for 15. “As players, we need to execute. We were given every opportunity to be successful. I think everyone in here will tell you we’re pretty fortunate to have that [coaching] group.”

Crosby didn’t rush to take Bylsma’s back after the Penguins lost Game 7 to the Rangers, 2-1. He probably realized there was no saving Bylsma at that point. Or maybe he preferred that people blame Bylsma instead of focusing on his game. Crosby didn’t get a point in the series against Boston and had just one goal in 13 playoff games this spring. It’s fair to think Bylsma still would be coach and Shero the general manager if Corsby had scored another goal or two and the Penguins had won the Rangers series.

Sadly for Bylsma, his firing came after what might have been his best regular-season coaching job. Despite losing 529 man-games to injury or illness, many to key players Malkin, Letang, Neal, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Pascal Dupuis, the Penguins won 51 games and finished with 109 points, the second-best total in franchise history. Along the way, Bylsma got to 250 career wins faster than any coach in NHL history. His final total of 252 wins with the Penguins should stand as the franchise record for a long time. He’s their only coach to have started and finished even four consecutive seasons.

Bylsma took none of it for granted.

“I know how easy it is within the calendar year to go from being smart to having to go,” he said during a long, reflective interview in January. “They tell you that you’re hired to be fired. No one likes the feeling of that. But I know I’m not going to coach in Pittsburgh until I’m 65 or 72 and then retire. That’s not going to be the case. But I’m not complaining. I think I’ve already eclipsed the average time span for a coach in the NHL.”

Bylsma could resurface quickly. He has been linked to the open jobs in Vancouver and Florida. The good news for him is he doesn’t have to rush and take a bad job. The Penguins owe him about $2 million for each of the next two seasons. He also could work in television. He was scheduled to do analysis for NHL Network during the Rangers-Los Angeles Kings game Monday night in the Stanley Cup final.

Bylsma will be just fine.

As for the Penguins, the next coach will have to win two Cups to be better than Bylsma.

Good luck to the new man with that.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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