Let’s not fire Dan Bylsma -- just yet.
The security Bylsma has as coach of the Penguins is an on-going topic among the fan base, where his work receives less than rave reviews from some.
The talk upticked a bit over the weekend as the Penguins lost twice to the detested Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0 and 4-3, with the latter game at the Consol Energy Center.
That talk, of course, is premature. Bylsma is not going to be fired during the regular season. Not only do the Penguins have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, they played Philadelphia without James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin and Kris Letang. That’s two of the team’s top four forwards and arguably their best two defensemen.
It’s tough to win in those circumstances. But the injury situation should improve shortly. Letang has been cleared to practice, which means if all goes well he’ll be back in the lineup for the playoffs, which begin in about four weeks. Kunitz is day-to-day. Martin, who sustained a broken hand in the Olympics, is expected back before the playoffs. Neal has a concussion, but the hope is he will not miss many games.
Bylsma needs to be evaluated with his team at close to full strength, not when it is staggered by injuries. Truth be known, he’s done a remarkable job considering all the games lost by important players this season.
The level of criticism of Bylsma is surprisingly high considering the team’s 44-23 record. The Penguins are second in the East in goals, second in goals-against, first in power-play percentage and second in penalty-kill percentage. Those numbers do not exactly warrant a firing.
The Penguins have been accused of having a country-club atmosphere in the locker room. If true, that’s not good, although a similar atmosphere prevailed for much of Mario Lemieux’s career. But if the atmosphere is lax or soft, it’s not exactly showing up in the standings or in the goal scoring or the goal prevention.
None of the regular-season statistics listed above will be what determines Bylsma’s future. The playoffs will do that. If he has a team that includes all of the currently injured players for the postseason, there is reason to expect much from the Penguins. They and the Boston Bruins are the clear top two teams in the East. As of today, with the expected return of the four players mentioned, anything short of advancing to the conference final would be a disappointment, and that would include an early loss to the Flyers, a team they could meet in the first round.
Bylsma coached the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009, just months after replacing the fired Michel Therrien. But they have disappointed in every postseason since.
• In 2010, they were eliminated in the second round by the upstart Montreal Canadiens, after holding a 3-2 edge in games.
• The next year, playing without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they lost in the first round to Tampa Bay, after leading the series, 3-1.
• In 2012, they lost in the first round to the Flyers, allowing 30 goals in six games.
•They advanced to the conference final last year, which might have been palatable if the series had been close. But the Penguins were outscored, 12-2 in a four-game sweep by the Bruins.
The roster the Penguins have assembled is what makes this streak of playoff losses particularly disappointing. After consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and 2009, no one in their wildest nightmares expected this roster to not be back in the final again over the next four seasons.
Bylsma has brought, since 2009, regular-season success and postseason disappointment. But here’s what some who want him removed overlook: His successor might well upgrade the postseason. Or he might bring regular-season disappointment along with the postseason disappointment.
As much as some people refuse to believe it, there is never a guarantee the next coach will do better.
Bylsma’s contract runs through the 2016 season. It was extended shortly after last season’s loss to the Bruins. That deal showed the support Bylsma has with general manager Ray Shero. How hard Shero had to convince Lemieux on the extension is not known.
What is known, though, is that the Penguins are making a significant profit every year. They are charging outlandish prices for their tickets and the public -- or at least the corporate world -- is continuing to buy them. They have fabulous TV ratings. No one would be eager to do anything to change that.
So if the Penguins again disappoint in the playoffs, there’s no guarantee Bylsma will be gone. It’s a tough call. And the call will be made by the man universally respected and revered by Penguins fans. Hard to argue with that.