DETROIT -- When Dan Bylsma drove from Wilkes Barre, Pa., to Uniondale, N.Y., for his first game as the Pittsburgh Penguins coach in mid-February -- the mode of transportation tells you something right there -- he admits to bringing some doubts with him. Not enough to run off the road or anything, but Bylsma clearly wasn't sure how the team would accept a guy who had only 50-odd games of minor-league head coaching experience.
"The guys have been amazing at how they bought in," said Bylsma, who this time last year was an assistant on a Calder Cup finalist team but on Friday afternoon shared a podium with new boss and Pens GM Ray Shero as part of the NHL's Media Day at the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
Shero later told NHL.com he is not surprised at the buy-in:
"Dan might only have 50 games as an AHL coach," he said, "but he played over 400 games as an NHL player, including playing for (Detroit coach) Mike Babcock in the 2003 Stanley Cup."
Asked for a scouting report on Bylsma the player, Shero said, "He wasn't overly talented. He was a decent player. He was a great team-role guy, what we call a 'good shirt.'"
Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis played against Bylsma and said his tendencies as a player have carried over behind the bench.
"He was a hard-working guy who knew the game," he said. "That's what he demands of his players."
Mark Eaton was a young defenseman back then but remembers Bylsma as "gritty."
Flash back to an "NBC Game of the Week" in mid-February, a week into Bylsma's tenure as Pens coach: Sidney Crosby stopped at the bench during a stop in play to talk with Bylsma. There was a bit of hand-waving and pointing. When asked about any potential hubbub, Crosby merely explained he was asking questions and trying to figure out proper positioning for Bylsma's system.
That willingness to play as part of a system and team is rampant on both the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, the hometown team that's back to defend its 2008 Stanley Cup title. You might say it is easier to get buy-in when you are 10th in the conference -- as Pittsburgh was on Feb. 15 when Michel Therrien was fired -- and that Babcock's fete of team-first players is the harder get. But it appears Babcock has a simple formula.
"Nobody here is asked to do too much," said defenseman Brad Stuart, who might have wondered about his own statement pulling extra shifts when Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson missed games in the Western Finals against Chicago. "You can focus on what you do well and get better at it."
Oh, and no easy-does-it-some-days stuff.
"[Babcock] doesn't let us take shortcuts on the defensive side of the puck," said Stuart, making it clear that meant everyone, not just defensemen. "The biggest thing is stopping on the puck, not turning or going past the puck. We call 'em 'fly-bys.' You don't want those, he doesn't want those."
Babcock quietly declared during Media Day that the 2009 Penguins "play a lot like us," a statement he would not have uttered last year in Pens-Wings I. That might be the highest compliment -- and cause for hope -- that any Pittsburgh fan could have asked for from the opposing coach.
"I think the guys they've added in (Chris) Kunitz and (Bill) Guerin, guys like that have helped them," said Babcock, who called Bylsma a "heart-and-soul guy" as a player. "Guerin's a mature player. Kunitz has won a Cup. (Goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury's been through it before. So to me all those things are pretty much a saw-off. Now we just play."
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