It’s no secret that Dan Bylsma has already become one of the most successful head coaches in Penguins history, hoisting the league’s highest honor – the Stanley Cup – just four months into his tenure.
But in just his second full season behind the bench, Bylsma’s coaching beliefs were tested to their limits – especially during the second half, when his injured players list nearly hit double digits. The Penguins played 34 of the last 35 contests without both Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
, while Brooks Orpik
, Paul Martin
and Chris Kunitz
also missed significant time, to name a few.
He also had to help his team adjust to a brand-new building, keep them focused through the constant presence of cameras for HBO Sports’ “24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” four-part reality series and for the primetime outdoor game that was the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic.
But the positive, energetic Bylsma never once wavered from his coaching philosophy of playing a certain way, instilling a belief in his players that they could win games by sticking to their system regardless of who was in the lineup – and win they did, posting one of the best regular-season records in franchise history.
That is why Bylsma has been named one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year, an honor that has left the 40-year-old coach extremely humbled.
“It’s humbling when you know you’re coaching against some of the coaches we have in our league,” he said. “To see your name next to names like Scotty Bowman, Bob Johnson and Herb Brooks in Pittsburgh history, let alone coaches in NHL history. And to think about your name getting mentioned as a Coach of the Year, a Jack Adams candidate is humbling. You take a step back and kind of shake your head a little bit. … Then you think about the opportunity you have to coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, our organization, with our players. You feel very fortunate and really humbled about the whole situation.”
While Bylsma played a huge role in his team’s success, he pointed out that he couldn’t have gotten to this point without assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden and goaltending coach Gilles Meloche.
“Sometimes I feel like with some of the success we’ve had this year and some of the ways our team has responded, I feel like as much of a passenger as anybody else,” Bylsma said.
“Our penalty kill was number one in the league this year, and Tony Granato is a huge part of that, a huge part of every day with the guys and making that detail-oriented and making that a great group. The way our defense played this year and some of the things we were able to do is all Todd Reirden and him coming in this year and a big part of adding to the way we play defense and what our defenseman can do, and he did a remarkable job. Marc-Andre Fleury
had probably his best season and his most consistent season, and Gilles Meloche has worked really hard in revamping a little bit of how Marc practices and where he puts his focus in, and that’s been a big part of that. So all of those guys have played a huge part in our team’s success and how we play, and without that, there’s no way we have the success that we have this year.”
While the adversity this Penguins squad experienced this year was certainly trying, sometimes that’s what it takes to realize how strong your foundations are and spotlight the character behind the bench and in the room.
“I think that you talk about certain things as a coach and you believe in certain things, and the players believe in them. Sometimes it takes adversity to show that to be true,” Bylsma said. “I’m thrilled for the guys in the room right now that they’ve had to go through that adversity, because they have worked and they have battled.”
Despite his team losing 350 man-games due to injury (including a combined 119 to the team’s top-three franchise centers – Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal
), under Bylsma, the Penguins earned the second-most points (106) and wins (49) in franchise history, along with the third-most (tied) points of the league’s 30 teams. The 106 points were five more than they achieved last season and seven more than the 99 they had during their 2009 Stanley Cup championship season.
Bylsma, who signed a three-year contract extension on March 9, also earned the best regular-season winning percentage (.653) in team history and became the fifth-fastest coach in NHL history to reach 100 wins (163 games).
But despite all of the accomplishments Bylsma achieved both personally and with the team during the 2010-11 campaign, he’s looking forward to the challenges next season will bring.
“There is some anticipation, but I do know that every year and every team is somewhat different, and you have to start up again,” he said. “Without some of the things that the guys did this year, without those things, then it doesn't matter what happens in the future, success isn’t guaranteed. That’s something we have to continue to build and continue to work on. … It’s always a challenge and sometimes in a lot of unforeseen ways, as we found out this year. But there’s always a challenge for each and every team and each and every group.”