FanPost

A Limited Defense of Dan Bylsma

Dan Bylsma may have lucked into a Stanley Cup caliber team, but he capitalized on that luck by bringing a positive, uptempo atmosphere (and system) that enabled this team to achieve their goal. That is a tribute to him. For a while, everybody loved and respected him, and he took full advantage. He was on top, he could do no wrong. Unfortunately, there was nowhere for him to go but down. The fact that he was still inexperienced wasn't going to help matters, especially since every new thing he tried out happened to work the first time. Talk about Score Effects...what about Cup Effects?

What Bylsma doesn't get credit for is the way some players have flourished in his system--typically, though, not right away. My examples, from most to least obvious, are Matt Niskanen, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Jordan Staal.

Take Staal. He was a 3rd line center primarily because he was the 3rd best center on the team. He was asked to sacrifice offense to play a shutdown role. In that role, he managed to both provide more offense than most 3rd line centers could generate, while also vaguely disappointing--both because his output was less than expected of #2 overall draft picks (especially when Captain Serious was drafted right after), and because he seemed to squander a lot of scoring chances.

Staal was a freak of nature who dominated play everywhere but on the scoresheet (the one area where Toews has been clearly superior) Staal often looked awkward offensively, and 50 pts per year looked like his ceiling. He took so long to wind up his shot, and wasn't the most nimble puck handler or passer. But sometimes, he would look like a player capable of scoring like his brother Eric.

Then Staal got injured vs. Montreal. Over the previous 4 seasons, he had missed one game. Over the next two, he missed 60 games. Curiously, his Points Per Game (PPG) average rose from 0.6 to 0.71 and 0.81, the last figure coming in 62 contests. His last season with the Pens, he was the leading scorer in the ridiculous Philadelphia series. At the time, I believed it was Staal's selfishness, his desire to score over being a Sean Couturier type shutdown guy, that helped the Pens lose the series. Maybe so. At the same time, what if Staal was truly blossoming offensively? He was the #2 pick overall. He did not think of himself as a 3rd line center, nor did his pedigree indicate that this was his ceiling. Offense is so tricky, he would be a fool to stop himself from scoring. Not only financial incentives, but pride in his play, would force him to reach his true potential.

Since Staal was traded to Carolina, his PPG have come back down to earth. But he is also playing on a crappier team. Staal never played in juniors or the minors after being drafted. He took 5-6 years to develop his offensive skills to the speed of the NHL game, all while playing a shutdown role and winning a Cup. At age 23, his breakout would have coincided with the slower development times of Power Forwards.

Bylsma's system needed a guy like Staal. The Pens certainly haven't been the same puck possession-wise since, as noted by GoPens! But what if Staal needed Bylsma's system to thrive?

Staal isn't the only one. Chris Kunitz has blossomed into a more reliable scorer as Sid's left wing, but it would be silly to think that Bylsma's system wasn't a boon. Pascal Dupuis -- a trade throw-in, who was not much of a difference maker in the Cup Run of 09. In 2011-12, at the age of 33, he had 59 points, and had 20 goals in 48 games the following year of the lockout. Prior to those seasons, Pascal was a superb athlete and solid hockey player with stone hands. Largely playing without Crosby he managed 45 goals, nearly all of them at even strength.

Staal, Kunitz, Dupuis. Three guys with size, speed, grit, and skill. They play simple, Dan Bylsma Going NorthTM style. They can forecheck and grind effectively, but can also make skill plays on the rush and counterattack. All made major strides offensively after a few years in Bylsma's system. As did Matt Niskanen.

Like a doubting Thomas, Matt Niskanen was on record noting how weird the system was, in that it asked Dmen to do things much different than most teams. Two seasons later, he was hands down the best Pens Dman for most of the season, and is probably gone to higher paid pastures, but he may not play up to that level again.

There were times in the past when the Pens hummed along like a well oiled machine; oddly, most of those times came when one or more superstars were injured. When Crosby came back in 2011-12, Malkin had taken the Pens on his back, Staal was producing at a #2 center level, and Nealer was on his way to 40 goals. Crosby's return took the team to another level offensively, but also gave the Pens a major case of overconfidence, which got their balloon so rudely popped by Philly.

There have also been times when Letang's absence from the lineup has seemed a case of addition by subtraction. Sometimes the Pens seem to work better when the Defense operated as robotic Puck Retrieval Machines, keeping it simple and allowing the forwards to do their thing--roles well suited for Martin, Orpik, Maata, and Niskanen--but clearly stifling for the roving Letang.

Perhaps the Penguins had too much talent. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Given how close Shero and Bylsma are, it seems odd that Shero didn't give Bylsma players that fit his system. Of course, he inherited Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Which means he would have had to trade one or more of them to ensure Bylsma had his players (and I'm not talking Craig Adams). But that is very risky for a GM to do. Easier to trade around the core and re-sign the stars to ensure butts in the seats, praise in the media, and glitter on the ice, at least in the regular season.

It's too early to say, but maybe Bylsma--a career 4th liner--is a Kevin Constantine type, a guy who can maximize the contributions of players with limited talent or limiting flaws. Given that he and his father publish books about raising a hockey kid, maybe he is a true teacher whose lessons take a while to sink in; in that sense, you can imagine that he might not have much to offer Sid or Geno, who came to the NHL pretty much complete. Or that he would treat young players too impatient to learn his lessons with disdain or demotion.

In this article, Scotty Bowman notes that his coaching strategy revolved around changing things up just to keep the other team off balance. That lesson can be projected onto team dynamics. Sometimes you just need to change things up. Unfortunately for Dan Bylsma, now is that time. A top heavy team can't play his style--witness the ever increasing man games lost. A new voice is needed, more disciplinarian to harness and focus (and protect) the Pens talent. But he will land on his feet.

What would really be funny if DB and Staal were reunited. I don't think the Penguins want that, which would explain a lot, actually. Like why Bylsma is still the Penguins coach.

The content expressed in fanposts does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff here at Pensburgh.com. FanPosts are opinions expressed by fans of various teams throughout the league but may be more Pittsburgh-centric for obvious reasons.

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