BUFFALO -- It's been more than 16 months since Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He's set to make his return to Pittsburgh on Thursday when the Penguins host the Sabres at Consol Energy Center (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, ROOT).
Bylsma established himself as a winning coach during his 5 ½ seasons in Pittsburgh. He led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup four months after he was hired in 2009. But despite six consecutive trips to the playoffs, he was fired on June 6, 2014.
Returning to Pittsburgh has been on Bylsma's mind since the Sabres hired him on May 28.
"Of course I've thought about it," Bylsma said Monday. "I haven't been gone from Pittsburgh that long. We just moved a few months ago. I know more street names in Pittsburgh than I do in Buffalo right now. I'm going to know my way around when I get there."
Just getting his bearings at the arena were among his first thoughts about going back to Pittsburgh.
"Walking down the hallway and going right and not left, and also stepping into the arena and being on the other bench. I thought about both those things," he said. "Those are emotional things for me and things I've thought about. But once the puck drops, it's not going to be a big deal."
Bylsma made his NHL coaching debut with the Penguins on Feb. 16, 2009, in a 3-2 shootout loss at the New York Islanders. The Penguins were five points out of a playoff berth when he replaced Michel Therrien; four months later, they were Stanley Cup winners.
"I think it was one of those things, taking a chance on a younger coach and a chance to grow with the team." former Penguins general manager and current New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero said Wednesday. "But even though he only had 55 games of head coaching experience in the American Hockey League, the thing for me is that he had played in the NHL for eight years and played with great players, and he was coming in to coach players like [Sidney] Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin-type of guys, [Sergei] Gonchar, even a guy like Petr Sykora where he played with and went to the Finals in Anaheim in '03 as a player.
"As a younger coach, he had eight years of NHL playing experience with guys like [Paul] Kariya, [Teemu] Selanne, [Wayne] Gretzky, between L.A. and Anaheim, and knew what that was like in terms of being in the room with superstar players and the role player he was."
Working with superstars helped Bylsma land the job with the Penguins; the experience he gained doing that helped him land in Buffalo. The additions of Evander Kane via trade in February and Jack Eichel with the second pick at the 2015 NHL Draft meant the Sabres needed a coach who could handle gifted players.
"I've answered the question quite a bit about star players and good players and Crosby and Jack Eichel and Malkin and Jack Eichel and having dealt with young players that were stars," Bylsma said. "So without a question I've learned that. But working under Ray Shero and how he put together a team and how he wanted the team to play, what it meant to play as a team, that's what I've learned and that's what I'm bringing to this scenario with the Sabres."
Bylsma is a known quantity now, but he wasn't when he was brought up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL in 2009. Shero said it became clear quickly the Penguins had made the right choice.
"I think with anything it's only going to work if the players buy in or believe that you know what you're doing," Shero said. "That was a concern … but I think it was after a week, I still remember as clear as day, I was walking out to watch practice one day and [Crosby] was trying to come back into the locker room and I was just walking through and I said, 'Hey, how are you doing.' And he says, 'Fine.' And I ask, 'Is everything OK?' And he says, 'I'm just getting gloves.' And walking out, he goes, 'Hey Ray, by the way, Dan; he's really good.' And I say, 'Oh, that's good to hear.' So I walk out of the room and say to myself, 'Thank God!'… If he right away just saw Dan and didn't believe or didn't buy what he was selling or didn't think he had an idea what he was talking about, that would've been a very difficult process."
The Sabres aren't coming off a loss in the Stanley Cup Final the way the 2008-09 Penguins were. Buffalo was the worst team in the NHL in 2013-14 and 2014-15 under Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan. Bylsma is trying to bring a lot of what worked on the ice for the Penguins to the Sabres.
"I think he has the same philosophy," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "It's a quick-paced, move-the-puck, get-up-in-the-play kind of mentality. I think that's where you saw the Penguins when he was there too. … [It's fun to play] because you're not sitting back. You're forcing the play, you're going and you're pressing."
Despite the Sabres' 3-6-0 start, the changes Bylsma has made to Buffalo's style of play are already apparent.
The Sabres had the worst shot attempt percentage in the NHL in each of the past two seasons; according to War-On-Ice.com, the 2014-15 Sabres had the lowest SAT% (37.5) since the statistic was first kept in 2005-06. Through nine games this season, the Sabres are ninth in SAT% at 52.0.
"What you learn from some of the experiences you go through, I believe Dan is a better coach than he was five years ago," Shero said. "Through the experience he has and the ups and downs, I think that makes him a better coach."