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Danger zone: Digging into Dan Bylsma's coaching strategies

A lot of fans wondered why Jarome Iginla was skating with Evgeni Malkin in practice yesterday. Why would the coach meddle with successful lines? A look at why it makes sense (which starts and ends with Kunitz and Crosby)

Bruce Bennett

You could hear the rumbles from Penguins fans and media yesterday after they saw the lines in practice. Chris Kunitz, as habit has been, was bumped from the Evgeni Malkin / James Neal pair back up to his other “usual” line with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. Jarome Iginla dropped down to the Malkin/Neal line, with Neal playing slightly away from his comfort zone on the left wing.

Many vocal Pens fans had long clamored to unite Crosby+Iginla (keeping Iggy on his familiar right side) and keeping the successful Kunitz+Malkin+Neal line together. It offers a reasonable and balanced scoring punch and Bylsma did that, to success, the past few playoff games.

So the sideline coaches and message boarders alike are unhappy with the changes. Why would coach Dan Bylsma continue to tinker when there’s no real reason to do so?

Maybe it’s because keeping players on their toes, and maybe even a little uncomfortable also helps keep their performances sharp.

Take the biggest fish of all in Crosby. He’s only scored 1 goal in the last five games and has one point in his last two games. While he does have nine shots in the last two and has flashed for several good scoring chances, the puck isn’t going in for Crosby right now. It’s no surprise that Crosby is most comfortable and prefers playing with Kunitz-Dupuis, Sid has publicly admitted as much himself. Those are the guys he’s played much of the last four years with, assuming he’s been healthy enough to play. Maybe playing along his usual wingers could give him a kick-start.

And it’s becoming no secret that whichever line has Chris Kunitz on it is the line has been the Penguins best line. There’s probably no coincidence in that- Kunitz plays Bylsma’s system perfectly with pressure on the forecheck, is capable and willing to go into corners and dirty areas to win pucks and is a sneakily underrated in-zone passer with a nose for the net to punch in goals. Give a superstar center that kind of left wing and it’s no wonder he succeeds. Kunitz helps open up more space on the ice for Malkin to operate and Kunitz’s grinding/wear-‘em-down style meshes really well with the down-low game that Crosby loves to play.

It could also be a message to Neal as well, who took three minor penalties in Game 1 and admitted that some were avoidable. Placing him off his normal right wing to the left side might be just the thing to draw some of his attention to detail and alert him to play a more mindful game.

For Iginla, playing with Malkin could be a benefit too. One thing I’ve noticed of Iginla as a Pittsburgh Penguin is he doesn’t want to touch the puck in the neutral zone too much. Be it for age, style or just his mindset, it often seems like he’s either trying to sneak behind the defense (remember those sky passes Crosby has attempted) or Iginla plays the puck quickly and deftly in the neutral zone, content to differ to a teammate. This quality seems tailor made for Malkin, who LOVES, needs and wants to carry the puck up the ice, establish control inside the blueline and dance around defenders to either look for a shot on goal, or make a pass to an open teammate.

Bylsma has seemingly given Malkin+Iginla every chance to work (while most fans clamor for the more established chemistry of Crosby+Iginla) but stylistically in 2013, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to keep Crosby with his preferred linemates of Kunitz-Dupuis, and keep Iginla in his natural RW spot with Malkin and hope that Neal, who played LW in Dallas, can adjust his game enough.

I realize that’s some heavy philosophy and you might not buy into all that stuff. What you have to buy into though is Bylsma’s recent results. Every lineup decision he’s made lately has seemed to pay off. His decision to make line changes and alterations might irk you, and it might to be difficult to understand as a fan, but there’s undoubtedly a method to the madness. As the old quote about legendary coach Scotty Bowman went: “you hated him 364 days of the year and on the 365th day you got your Stanley Cup ring”. This isn’t to say Bylsma is as prickly or difficult as some coaches, but he has his reasons and they’re not just to temper with success.

Even if it’s not evident or obvious why Bylsma is making the choices that he is, in his mind he’s setting up the team the best for their next game. Though I might not understand or respect every decision (let’s not even get started on Deryk Engelland), digging deep shows there reason behind the decisions.