Ron Cook: Bylsma tribute sensible, classy


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It was one of the nicer moments in sports, the kind that makes you glad you were able to see it. Penguins management, always classy when it comes to doing scoreboard tributes, honored Dan Bylsma in a game Wednesday night against Washington for becoming the franchise’s winningest coach. The ovation was loud and long and left Bylsma …

What’s the right word?

Squirming?

“My brother saw it on TV and told me I was squirming,” Bylsma said.

“It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Not the tribute.

“That was overwhelming,” Bylsma said.

The fact that Bylsma has more wins for an organization that has employed Herb Brooks, Badger Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman among many others, as coaches, 235 wins to be exact going into a home game tonight against the Florida Panthers.

“There’s a picture in the Consol Energy Center of the three coaches who won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins,” Bylsma said.

Johnson. Bowman. Bylsma.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that I’m one of the three,” Bylsma said. “I’m so honored to be a part of that group.”

The Penguins won the Cup under Bylsma in 2009, a few months after he replaced fired Michel Therrien. Since then, he became the first coach in franchise history to start and finish four seasons. The Penguins have had 20 coaches since 1967. The Steelers, by comparison, have had three since 1969.

For a brief time, it didn’t appear as if Bylsma would get to start his fifth full season this season. There was widespread speculation that he should and would be fired after the Penguins were swept out of the Eastern Conference final last spring by the Boston Bruins. It was crazy talk. The team was not beaten because of Bylsma. It was beaten because stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang failed to shine against the Bruins. Penguins general manager Ray Shero agreed, quickly giving Bylsma a two-year contract extension through the 2015-16 season.

“I really believe we have a great head coach in Dan Bylsma,” Shero said at the time. “I believe he’s the head coach to take us forward. I have faith in his ability.”

Bylsma, who will coach the United States team next month at the Sochi Olympics, has justified the support this season. It is his best coaching job even though he refuses to go there, saying, “It’s not like I say, ‘This is good,’ or, ‘I’m really doing a good job.’ I’m in the middle of it. I just know we’ve had challenges and we will continue to have challenges.”

OK, fair enough.

I’ll say it for Bylsma.

This is his best coaching job.

Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 2010-11 when the Penguins finished with 106 points despite playing much of the season without injured Crosby and Malkin. But his work this season has been ever better. Every key player but Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jussi Jokinen has missed significant playing time because of injuries. Bylsma acknowledged there have been games when the Penguins used “replacements for replacements for replacements.” That was especially true Wednesday night against the Capitals when Nick Drazenovic and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond became the 35th and 36th players to dress for the team. The Penguins, almost amazingly, still won, 4-3. That’s how it has gone all season. They are 34-12-2 and took a 15-point lead in the Metropolitan Division and an eight-point lead in the Eastern Conference into the Sunday games.

“A lot of teams would shudder having to play a 13th defenseman. We don’t,” Bylsma said. “I don’t look at the guys we call up as not being a part of our team.”

Bylsma credited Shero and assistant general manager Jason Botterill, along with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine, with establishing the same system throughout the organization.

“I know how hard it is to change teams because I lived it as a player,” Bylsma said. “You have no confidence. You don’t know what to do, where to go, how to play. It’s tough to have success and contribute and play your game.

“It’s not like that here. The guys come up here with confidence because they know what we’re doing. When we call for a drill in practice, they step to the front of the line. That’s a big thing for our team. Guys know what to do and how to do it …

“We’ve been without a Brooks Orpik for a number of games. We’ve been without other players. But the expectations they set are still there. The new guys step up. That’s been what’s great about this year’s team. We’ve been able to win with different lines and people in different roles.”

Success in the regular season is nice, but the Penguins have reached the point where they will be judged only by what they do in the postseason. Come April, they again will be among the heavy favorites to win the Cup. The team is just 3-4 in playoff series since 2009. Bylsma knows many of the fans who stood and cheered for him Wednesday night will be calling for his firing if the Penguins don’t at least make it to the Stanley Cup final.

“I only have to look at the other coaching situations in town to know that’s the case,” Bylsma said.

Mike Tomlin has led the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances — winning one — and is being widely criticized for missing the playoffs two years in a row. Jamie Dixon is one of the best college basketball coaches in America, yet is reminded constantly he hasn’t taken a Pitt team to the Final Four.

“I know how easy it is within the calendar year to go from being smart to having to go,” Bylsma said. “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 laughed.

“Certainly, I’ve done that here.”

Bylsma has been around long enough to be the Penguins’ winningest coach, that much we know for sure.

It makes perfect sense to me.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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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