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Bylsma's goal: More aggressive hockey

Friday, 02.20.2009 / 10:46 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

"I'm not interested in playing a 50/50 game. I'm not interested in seeing how the first period goes. I want us to establish our identity and how we need to play. When you play that way, the scales tip in your favor. Those are the odds I like to bring to a game. Whether we're coming into New York, we're going into Philly, this is the way we're going to play, and if we play that way, we're going to have success."
-- Dan Bylsma

Dan Bylsma has come a long way in a week.

He started last Sunday preparing to coach the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in their American Hockey League game against the Worcester Sharks. By that night, he had been promoted to coach of the parent Pittsburgh Penguins after General Manager Ray Shero opted to fire Michel Therrien. A week later, he'll be behind the bench as the defending Eastern Conference champions visit the Verizon Center for a nationally televised showdown with the Washington Capitals (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Bylsma was an NHL journeyman -- a hard-working checker who put up 19 goals and 62 points in 429 games with Los Angeles and Anaheim before retiring as a player in 2004. He quickly got into coaching, made his NHL debut as an assistant with the New York Islanders during the 2005-06 season, joined the Penguins organization in the summer of 2006 and became coach of the Baby Pens last summer.

He was getting ready for last Sunday's game against Worcester when he got the call from Shero that he was replacing Therrien one night after the defending Eastern Conference champions suffered an embarrassing 6-2 loss at Toronto -- the latest loss for a team that's 10th in the Eastern Conference with less than two months to go in the season.
 
Instead of spending President's Day with his family, he was behind the bench at the Nassau Coliseum, where the Penguins lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Islanders. He got his first NHL coaching win three nights later when the Penguins topped Montreal, 5-4.

"Our guys were energized, focused and ready to go," Bylsma said after his first win. "I think they had a real clear understanding of what was at stake and the way we wanted to play. While it wasn't perfect, I think they sent a message loud and clear."

Bylsma hasn't tried to make a lot of tactical changes since stepping behind the bench in Pittsburgh. He's more intent on changing their attitude.

"Mentality-wise," he said after his coaching debut when asked what needed to be changed. "That's easy. Systematic-wise, I think a lot of things would have been real hard to change. But the mentality of being aggressive, being on your toes, playing with speed and forcing the other team to deal with your skill, your speed, get to the offensive zone and stay there as long as you can; that was the message we wanted to send -- aggressive, on your toes and play with the puck in the offensive zone.

It took the Penguins the better part of two periods against the Islanders to get the hang of what Bylsma wanted. But they dominated the third period and overtime only to be stymied by Joey MacDonald, who made 35 saves and stopped the NHL's top two scorers, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, to win the shootout.

"I think as the game went on, we got more in tune with how we want to play and the message we sent before the game," Bylsma said. "The third period was a pretty aggressive period -- we were in the offensive zone a lot. We had pucks around the net, we had some scrambles there, and we forced them to play with our skilled players in and around their net. That's how we need to play -- to dictate the pace of the play. The third period was a good indication of how we need to look."

If there was any doubt that Bylsma was in charge, it was dispelled Wednesday when he put the Penguins through a three-hour practice -- something that's rarely seen two-thirds of the way into a season.

But with time -- and games -- running short, the new coach and his team knows the stakes are high.

"That was an attempt at training camp, in short order," Bylsma said. "I think the players understand the situation, understand today would be different from a normal day."

Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury were among the Penguins who said after the loss to the Islanders that Therrien's firing caught them by surprise. Many of the Penguins knew Bylsma only casually -- from training camp or rehab stints with the Baby Pens.

The long practice was an interesting introduction.

 
"We knew we weren't playing well and the result of that is usually the coach being fired," Crosby said. "Basically, we've got to wake up."

Unlike Therrien, whose system often seemed very passive for a team with some of the NHL's most talented players, Bylsma wants to push the tempo at every opportunity. At times in Thursday's game, the Penguins looked like a team playing fire-wagon hockey -- an approach that was anathema under Therrien.

"It's imperative that we get there as quick as we can, with speed and puck support," he said. "We have skill and speed; we need to utilize it. When you play an east-west game, it slows the game down and gives teams the opportunity to be in good defensive position.

"You want to have the puck, want to execute, want to go north with speed as quickly as we can so we can force teams to deal with our transition speed and skill -- force them to go back, turn, get into the defensive zone and stay there."

In other words, rather than worrying about making mistakes of their own, Bylsma wants his team to be more aggressive and instinctive, and less driven by a mindset of avoiding mistakes.

"I'm not interested in playing a 50/50 game. I'm not interested in seeing how the first period goes. I want us to establish our identity and how we need to play," Bylsma said. "When you play that way, the scales tip in your favor. Those are the odds I like to bring to a game. Whether we're coming into New York, we're going into Philly, this is the way we're going to play, and if we play that way, we're going to have success."

Whether that kind of change will work is an open question. The Penguins were two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup last spring playing Therrien's system, and changing tactics in midstream is a risk. But with the Penguins foundering despite having two of the NHL's marquee talents, it was a risk Shero felt he had to take.
"It's definitely a more fun way for us to play. It's going to take time to get used to and we were a little sloppy at times, but I thought the work ethic was the best we've had in a while." -- Brooks Orpik
On Thursday night, at least, he was rewarded.

"We were playing aggressive and took advantage of some good chances. It was a pretty high tempo, and that's the way we want to play," Crosby said. "We were reacting out there pretty well, but at the same time we still have a few kinks to work out."

Added defenseman Brooks Orpik: "It's definitely a more fun way for us to play. It's going to take time to get used to and we were a little sloppy at times, but I thought the work ethic was the best we've had in a while."
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