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Five Questions: Bylsma enjoying studying the game

by Dan Rosen /'s Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma:

With time on his hands this season, former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has gone back to being a student of the game. His classroom is his living room. His desk is his couch. His teachers are the coaches and players in the NHL.

"I have done a scout on 27 teams to this point," Bylsma said. "I haven't gotten every team yet, but I'm coaching my son's team and I've been other places where it's just not possible to sit down and watch all of the games that are going on for that two days or three days. So I haven't watched every game, but I usually record two games a night and watch a game so I can watch the other games the next morning at some point in time to see what's happening."

Bylsma is studying to stay up to date on what's happening in the NHL in case his phone rings with his next job offer. He's ready for that to happen. But he's also studying as a way to learn more about nuances of the game that he never had time to dissect when he was coaching.

"There are some analytic aspects of the game that I'm looking at and delving into what the numbers mean, what the analytics mean," Bylsma said. "There are certain aspects of how some teams play that I want to dissect and breakdown."

For example, when someone says, "We need to play in the offensive zone," Bylsma is trying to determine how teams are getting there and what they are doing to stay there.

"We have a lot of numbers about it, but what does it mean, how do you do it?" Bylsma said.

He's looking at the grind factor on defensemen and the effect it has on them.

Former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has become a student of the game.
(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

"It's minutes played and the quality of minutes you get," Bylsma said. "How many times do they go back for pucks? How long are they playing in the 'D' zone?"

He's analyzing zone-entry situations, trying to figure out the cost and benefit between carrying the puck into the zone versus chipping it in and hunting it down?

"That's why I talk about the grind factor," Bylsma said. "As a defenseman it's easiest to play you face-to-face. The hardest defense to play is when you have to turn. So if you get a shot on net, the defenseman has to turn. If you make him go back for a puck, he has to turn. If you carry it in all night and he's playing face-to-face, it's the easiest defense you can play. Even though it's the best to carry it over the line, it's easiest on the defender.

"I'm just trying to look at those aspects. I've looked at certain teams that are good at carrying it in and are good in the offensive zone."

And through it all Bylsma has gotten a good grasp on what's happening in the NHL with teams and players, surprises and disappointments. He offered some of his opinions on what he's seen and what he thinks in a Q&A with

Here are Five Questions with … Dan Bylsma:

Which teams or players have surprised you in the Western Conference?

"I'll start in Nashville with David Poile and Peter Laviolette. Injuries have been a theme of the year and they had the injury to [Mike] Fisher, and it's almost not even talked about at this point in time with their team. They kind of take a flier on [Mike] Ribeiro and [Derek] Roy, and Ribeiro has obviously made good on it at this point in time on the top line with [Filip] Forsberg and [James] Neal. I think Pittsburgh and Nashville feel good about that trade right now, but it's brought a legitimized goal scorer to Nashville. That top line has been really good for them. I think there has always been talk about the way Nashville played defense, and I think they play defense differently now than they did with Barry Trotz. It's helped them be a better offensive team, a quicker transition team. You see that not only with the top line, but in waves. You thought they would be better and more offensive, but to do it in the Western Conference, where it's tougher, and to see them at the top is good.

"I think you expected to see Anaheim, San Jose and L.A. at the top of the Pacific. Anaheim is certainly there, but Vancouver, with Willie Desjardins coming in there, has changed the focus of its team to a four-line team and are winning games with contributions throughout the lineup. It has energized their top line. With [Radim] Vrbata going on there with the twins, they've been very good. And their power play has been rejuvenated. They've rode the play from their 12 forwards and their power play.

"But Calgary to me is maybe the biggest surprise in the League. It's not a new coach, but I think [Bob] Hartley has done a good job there. They've been a hard-working team, they've been a compete team. They're led by two defensemen, which I think is amazing to see. Arizona has been like that too, being led by [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson and [Keith] Yandle at the top of their scoring, but [Mark] Giordano and [TJ] Brodie have led that team on the back end and don't get a ton of notoriety for it being out in the West. Brodie and Giordano are top guys. Some of their young players have come to the forefront too. Johnny Gaudreau, after a healthy scratch and wondering where he was at, he's come on fire and been really good for them.

"So some surprises out in the West, but I do think you'll see San Jose, L.A. and Chicago rise to the top."

Let's talk about Chicago. The Blackhawks are getting a lot of shots on goal, they always have the puck, so do you anticipate they will start scoring in bunches on a consistent basis?

"When you talk about statistics like goal scoring and power play, you have to go beyond the fact of scoring a goal. Sometimes players go through times when they don't score a goal. You hear coaches talk about whether they're getting chances, whether they're getting the opportunities. If you look at the Chicago Blackhawks and watch them play, they're getting opportunities. They're getting scoring chances. They're hitting posts. If it's a playoff series and you don't score for one or two, it's a big problem. If you hit a post or two and it goes the other way, it's a big problem. But in the course of the regular season, the Blackhawks keep getting 30-plus shots a game and they keep getting chances out of [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane and [Brandon] Saad and [Marian] Hossa, I don't see it as a concern."

How about in the Eastern Conference, has any team jumped out at you and either impressed you, surprised you or both?

"I think you expected Montreal to be second in the Atlantic, so that is not necessarily a surprise. They've been giving up that first goal, so it may be a concern down the road. You see Tampa Bay doing well and you expected them to be up there. Detroit, maybe a little higher, but not a surprise when you see [Pavel] Datsyuk, [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Justin] Abdelkader playing together, maybe the best line playing in the League when they play together. The one team you look at it and see how they do is Florida. They can be a surprise team in the East. But the team I would say is the biggest surprise in the East right now, and they're not far off, is the Boston Bruins. [Zdeno] Chara has been injured, so that's going to be a time period, maybe three more weeks without him, to see where they go. You expect them to be at the top of the Atlantic and they're not there right now. They're in a wild card now and I think that might be where they end up."

Cory Schneider with the New Jersey Devils has started every game this season. At some point here you'd think Peter DeBoer has to go to the backup, but as a coach how far do you go with the starter if you don't know or trust the backup? Do you worry about the longevity of the goaltender in November when you've got to win games now to try to make it worthwhile in March and April?

"I have not been in a situation where the goalie had a history of playing 70-plus games. Marc-Andre [Fleury] in Pittsburgh had a history of playing 'X' amount of games, so I didn't go into the season thinking I wasn't going to play my backup, whoever it was. Last year was the first time we had an unproven backup in Jeff Zatkoff, so we were a little more in tune to the schedule and the situation and when Jeff was going to play last year, but the in the olden days they used to play those goaltenders all the time. It was expected that they would play 70-plus games.

"I'm a coach who likes to see the backup be a guy who you can count on to play games, who you can count on to win games, almost expect him to go in and win games. When you don't play him you also show a lack of confidence in the guy, and that's something I think you need to have. You need to have a guy who is going to go in there and thinks he's going to win a game for a team. So I've never gone on streaks of 11 or 12 in a row with one guy. At times Marc-Andre probably wanted to play 11 in a row, but sometimes the schedule dictates it too. If they're not in a situation through 11 games when they've played a back-to-back or a three-in-four, they may not have been in a situation where they needed to use their backup goalie. But at some point in time you're going to go to the guy, you need to go to the guy, and you can tax your goalie with too much hockey at the beginning of the season and you're not going to be able to get that back."

Another philosophical question, so to speak: Points are so valuable and the parity in the League is probably at an all-time high, so when you're coaching early in the season, in November, do you treat it as if the playoff race is already on, or do you not do that because you'd wear yourself out if you tried?

"If you're talking about how it is within the coach's room or how you treat your team, there may be two different answers, but I'm a huge believer in the first 20 games being maybe more important in terms of making the playoffs than the last 20 games. If you're coming out of training camp with an advantage of how you've practiced and you can ride that into the first part of the season and get out to the lead, that's a huge thing versus if you are right now 4-5-3. If you're a week away from 20 games and you find yourself behind the eight-ball, you will be battling the whole year. Then you get to the end and you know there are going to be teams that go on runs and start winning because they need to get into the playoffs. To get in that race is tough. It's not comforting to be in that race where you need to win to get in, or if you're behind and you see a team in front of you win, and now you have to win to keep pace. I'd rather be doing that in October and November rather than March and April."


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