A lot of people have been complaining recently that Bylsma doesn't know how to match lines, or that he stubbornly refuses to do so. Neither claim is true.
We can see whether Dan Bylsma line matches by looking at zone start and quality of competition numbers for individual players. The theory behind this is that if Bylsma is matching his lines by using a shutdown line against top competition and getting Crosby/Malkin easier minutes against lesser opponents, then some forwards on this team will have a high QoC rating compared to the Pens' bigger offensive weapons. Moreover, we can look at zone start to see how he is deploying his forwards. You would hope that offensively gifted forwards start more often in the offensive zone, while defensive guys go to work in the defensive zone. A coach who doesn't know or care about match-ups would deploy his players randomly.
Let's start by looking at Bylsma's tenure with Jordan Staal as the 3C (please click all images to enlarge them). Here is the Corsi Rel QoC report for forwards from behind the net for 2009-2010, Bylsma's first full season:
Here is the same chart for the 2010-2011 season:
And here is the same chart for the 2011-2012 season, Staal's last full season with the Penguins:
One thing is consistent: Jordan Staal was being deployed as a shutdown center. Bylsma used him to take on the other team's top competition, which is why he led the team all three years in Corsi Rel QoC. His typical linemates -- Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke -- were also never far behind in this regard. This allowed Bylsma to get more favorable match-ups for Crosby and Malkin, evidenced by the fact that each of them had significantly lower Corsi Rel QoC metrics. The zone starts tell a similar story. For each year (other than Crosby in 2010), Staal started much more often in the defensive zone, which allowed Bylsma to use his offensive guns in the o-zone on a more regular basis.
The conclusion from all this is clear: Bylsma knew what line-matching (and match-ups more generally) were, and he used them to his advantage by deploying Staal as a shutdown center. Derek Zona, who last I heard does hockey consulting with superstar Eric Tulsky, made a similar observation in 2011:
The more I watch the Pittsburgh Penguins - Tampa Lightning series, the more I marvel at the way Dan Bylsma manages his bench and employs his game strategy. Without his two best forwards, Bylsma's strategy and tactics (and the best defense in the game) have allowed the Penguins to dominate territorially and outshoot by a wide margin.
So now that we know that Bylsma knows what match-ups are and that he can use them to his advantage, we should ask: did anything change following the 2011-2012 season? Oh yea. The Penguins traded Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter and other assets. After watching Sutter for a number of games and checking out his numbers, it was hard to miss the dropoff in talent. I wrote a piece a while ago about how important Staal was to the Penguins and how Sutter was not able to carry the shutdown role like Staal could.
But it wasn't for a lack of trying. Here is Sutter's Corsi Rel QoC for 2013, his first season with the Pens:
You can see that Bylsma tried to use him in a shutdown role with Staal's old linemates. Sutter also had a low zone start, indicating a lot of defensive zone usage. But while Staal was a positive possession player, Sutter was getting crushed. Bylsma (who I don't think is an idiot) would have seen this and thought "Sutter can't handle Staal's minutes, so to avoid continuously making him a liability to this team, I'm going to adjust the match-ups."
And that's exactly what he did. Here is the Corsi Rel QoC for forwards from this season:
Brandon Sutter isn't even in the top half of QoC metrics anymore. Crosby and Malkin are now seeing tougher competition to make up for the fact that Sutter was not able to carry the load Staal could. For what it's worth, Sutter still sees many more d-zone draws than offensive zone draws this year.
I think there is a pretty clear picture here. While the team had Jordan Staal, Bylsma took advantage of using him as a shutdown center, which freed up the ice for Crosby and Malkin. In the first year with Brandon Sutter as his replacement, Bylsma tried to use him in the same role, but he was getting badly beaten in the possession department. This year, Bylsma decided to ease his load by giving him easier competition and keeping Crosby out there against tougher opponents. I don't think Bylsma is stupid or moronic for doing this. Sutter cannot handle tougher match-ups because he doesn't have Staal's level of talent. One blogger drove home this point after the Flyers series this weekend:
It's commonplace to hear the announcers say "Couturier is really getting under Malkin's skin" or "the Flyers are getting Couturier out against the Crosby line as often as possible." Have you ever heard anyone say that about the Pens?
"Sutter is really getting David Krejci off his game here, Doc."
"Edzo, Steven Stamkos is having a hard time finding open ice out there with Sutter in his grill all game."
What a smart play by Sutter to frustrate Claude Giroux and bait him into taking a bad penalty."
"Doc, Edzo, Marcel Goc is in Phil Kessel's head. HE IS IN PHIL KESSEL'S HEAD, DOC AND EDZO!!!"
It's worth noting, however, that Bylsma still works to get favorable match-ups through zone starts. During his entire tenure, he has always made sure to give Malkin an offensive zone start near or above 60%. Crosby initially got a ton of offensive zone starts as well, but that number has come down a lot as he has been (1) asked to take a ton of faceoffs since Sutter is not as good as Staal, and (2) asked to play a more defensive role sometimes since we're thin with regard to good defensive forwards. But the point still remains: Bylsma is using zone starts to get the match-ups he wants.
During Sunday's game against Philadelphia, Pierre and Edzo were talking about how Couturier came out for an offensive zone draw, and Bylsma, with the last change, threw Crosby out (which for him was a defensive zone draw). They were surprised he didn't hide Crosby from Coots, and a lot of armchair NHL coaches who happen to spend time commenting on internet message boards noted that "when Pierre and Edzo are telling you how to coach, you must know at that point that Bylsma is a joke." This is misguided for two reasons. First, in that game, Crosby had ten offensive zone starts and only four defensive zone starts. Picking out that unusual time when Crosby was on the ice against Coots in the d-zone is a perfect example of confirmation bias.
Second, if Bylsma gives in to that match-up and keeps Crosby off the ice, no one talks about the consequences of that decision. Imagine that there is an offensize zone draw. Berube throws out Couturier anticipating that Bylsma wants Malkin or Crosby out there. In order to play the match-ups, Bylsma sends out the third or fourth line. Then what happens? More likely than not, the third or fourth line doesn't generate offense and gets hemmed in its zone (as evidenced by our bottom six forwards' woeful possession numbers). So what do you do now? If you put Crosby out, he's starting 200 feet away from where his skills are most valuable (the offensive zone). And on the chance that he can't get out of the d-zone or can't set up in the o-zone, you've wasted his shift. Maybe you throw out another bottom six line, this time in the d-zone, to try and get to the offensive zone again. They rarely do that, but let's assume they do it this time. Berube throws out Couturier again for the Penguins' o-zone draw. See what's happening here?
By obsessing over these "match-ups," Bylsma has to either (1) use Crosby in less than optimal circumstances by starting him away from the offensive zone and limiting his ice time, or (2) put him in the o-zone but accept that he'll see a lot of Coots. If he avoids this match-up at all costs, Crosby's ice time is limited and he can't help his team. On top of all of this, you've let the visiting team's coach dictate how you'll play the game in your own building. I'm not sure how anyone can get excited about that.
Jesse Marshall made a similar observation:
Many people seemed to question Bylsma’s use of Crosby against Couturier this weekend.
The question Bylsma found himself faced with was simple. Do you want Couturier playing offense or defense?
Couturier haunted Crosby all weekend, but Crosby had his scoring chances, especially in the waning moments of yesterday’s game. Against lesser competition, Couturier might have been able to torch the Penguins bottom six.
I'd hope the best player in the world could do better against Coots and let the bottom six toil against the Flyers' weaker forwards.
The big takeaway here, in my eyes, is that Bylsma doesn't have a problem with match-ups. People who complain about who he is matching Crosby/Malkin up with don't think about the larger consequences of those decisions down the line. Suffice it to say, I want Jordan Staal back, but without him, Bylsma is doing the best he can with a bottom six that, to put it kindly, is not terribly impressive.