On the Penguins: The Bylsma Effect
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Every sport has interim coaches.
Hockey, though, often seems to have no other kind.
They're not all identified that way, of course. NHL coaches who get tagged as "interim" when they're hired generally lose either the label or the job within a few months.
Still, long-term job security is a virtual oxymoron in the league, where spending three or four seasons behind the same bench practically qualifies a guy for a lifetime achievement award.
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That certainly is true with the Penguins, who have had 22 coaching changes since Red Sullivan ushered the franchise through its first two winters.
The most recent came Feb. 15, 2009, when Michel Therrien -- who had guided the Penguins to within two victories of a Stanley Cup the previous spring -- was jettisoned in favor of Dan Bylsma. Bylsma promptly lifted the Penguins out of a seemingly hopeless morass and, a few months later, to the championship that had eluded them in 2008.
Bylsma is less than two weeks from finishing his fourth year on the job, a run without equal since the Penguins entered the world in 1967.
Keeping his players attentive and motivated going forward, however, could be the greatest challenge he has faced. Before solid efforts against the New York Rangers and New Jersey, Bylsma's players had, at times, performed in a way that suggested his effectiveness could have been approaching its expiration date.
It might simply have been a by-product of their abbreviated preseason -- in a normal year, training camp would be winding down now -- but players who once absorbed, and appeared to be inspired by, virtually every syllable he uttered performed on occasion as if they were tuning him out.
Traits synonymous with the Penguins when Bylsma has had them playing their best -- intensity and focus and crisp execution and attention to detail -- often were conspicuously absent during the early days of this season.
It is telling, though, that a survey of some veteran leaders, who were offered anonymity in exchange for complete candor, largely absolved Bylsma of culpability for the team's up-and-down showing in January.
Their bottom line: Any major problems stemmed from sloppy work by the players.
It also is noteworthy that general manager Ray Shero had a succinct response when asked if considering a coaching change had even made it onto his radar during the Penguins' staggering start:
"No. No. No. No."
It likely is safe to take that as a "No."
One of Shero's greatest strengths is that he does not act in haste, and, even if he had been contemplating a major move to kick-start his team -- be it a trade to add a top-six winger or a top-pairing defenseman or a coaching change -- precedent says he would not do anything until convinced that the option he had settled on was the best available.
At the same time, being in a lockout-shortened regular season will add an urgency to whatever deliberations Shero might go through if the Penguins don't consistently play to their potential. The 2008-09 season was in its fifth month when he brought in Bylsma; this one will last a total of less than 31/2 months.
Acting prematurely could be costly, but so could waiting too long, should Shero ever conclude that something dramatic is in order this winter.
Coaches, after all, are not the only ones in the NHL who have a finite shelf life.
The same is true of championship contenders. And, while the Penguins' window of opportunity isn't close to closing yet, the NHL is so competitive, so balanced, that clubs must try to make the most of every chance they have to win a Cup.
And, as the Penguins proved in 2009, having the right coach is a big part of that.
The Week Ahead
Today: at Washington ... One of the Penguins' most fierce rivalries resumes as they make their only visit of the regular season to the Verizon Center. Pictured: Alex Ovechkin.
Tuesday: at New York Islanders ... Remember when the Penguins could count on the Islanders to give them some spirited competition and, by evening's end, a couple of points? Those days ended three consecutive losses ago.
Thursday: vs. Washington ... No one has to wait long for the rematch as the Capitals come to a town where they've won seven of their past eight games.
Saturday: at New Jersey ... The Penguins fare pretty well in most Atlantic Division venues, but the Prudential Center is a striking exception. They're 2-6-1 in their past nine trips to Newark.
First Published February 3, 2013 12:00 am