It was 11 days ago that Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was given a three-year contract extension. Given that Bylsma led the Pens to a championship in his first season, and that he has amassed more than 100 wins without having completed two full seasons behind the Pittsburgh bench, the deal seemed like a smart one for both parties. But while some might view the extension as a just reward for delivering a championship, this season, fraught as it has been with injuries and stiff competition, may be the reason GM Ray Shero has decided to ink the young coach longterm.
This season, Bylsma has earned his money.
While no one has ever questioned the coaching brilliance of Phil Jackson in the NBA, with players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen, it's easy to get cynical and notice that he's picked his spots well. Similarly, Bylsma's tenure started with a Pittsburgh franchise that is loaded for bear with young talent -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury -- and a strong defense that is locked up for several seasons, meaning that his coaching career could cover a span in which the Pens are set up for competitiveness if not dominance.
Having that kind of talent can make it easy to dismiss the impact of the coach, but this season a roster that has essentially been without two of the three best players in the world for half the season is still in the thick of it. In addition, prior to Sunday's loss at home to the Rangers, the Penguins were not just safely in the East's top eight, but they had won four of five and were pushing Philadelphia atop the Atlantic Division.
Doing so without the team's two best players is astonishing, particularly given that Crosby, prior to suffering a concussion, appeared headed for the League's MVP award in a walk. Sid was on pace for 64 goals and 68 assists, totals that would have given him just the second 60-goal season the NHL has seen in the past 12 years, and the most points in the League since Mario Lemieux tallied 160 in 1993. Bylsma's coaching job has been impressive to this point, but there's no denying that Pittsburgh would be better off with its two young perennial all-star pivots. Without both Crosby and Malkin in the lineup this season, the Penguins are just 12-8-4, a mark that, while above .500, could certainly be improved upon by a Cup contender.
Fortunately for Bylsma and Co. help could be on the way. The Penguins haven't set any sort of return date for Crosby, with some speculating that he could be done for the season so as not to jeopardize his entire career -- and given the recent concern over concussions, that kind of thinking certainly seems reasonable. But it's clearly noticeable that Crosby has been more and more active in recent weeks, with perhaps the most reassuring signs coming Sunday morning when he took the ice at roughly 7:30 a.m. to run a number of drills in full pads.
Those drills were of the non-contact variety to be sure, but considering reports weeks ago that Crosby was having difficulty riding a stationary bike this is a tremendous improvement for one of the League's biggest stars. Obviously, the very real chance that Crosby won't return this season is still out there. Taking a shot at a championship this year with your franchise cornerstone's future hanging in the balance would be unwise for several reasons. But if Crosby is healthy enough to come back come playoff time -- and plays like he did before leaving the ice in January -- it could be just what the Penguins need.
And, without question, it will completely change the dynamics of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.
— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic