Dan Bylsma isn’t far removed from his playing days.
In fact, forward Pascal Dupuis
vividly remembers what it was like playing against him, as he – then with the Minnesota Wild – faced Bylsma, then a forward with the Anaheim Ducks, in the 2003 Western Conference Finals.
“He played hard,” Dupuis said of Bylsma, whose team advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals that year. “He played the game like he coaches it ... He’s a coach that understands the game, played the game and isn’t too far removed from it.”
That’s why it should come as no surprise that Bylsma, who celebrated his two-year anniversary as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 15, became the fastest coach in franchise history to record 100 wins (163 games) with a 2-1 overtime victory over Los Angeles on Feb. 10 at CONSOL Energy Center.
Bylsma, 40, also became the fifth-fastest coach in National Hockey League history to achieve that milestone, surpassing Washington’s Bruce Boudreau (164 games).
“I think since the first day he came in, he’s always had the same attitude,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
said of Bylsma’s enduring success in Pittsburgh over these past two years. “We buy into his system and play the way he wants – (which is) always play for the next shift, no matter what happens. Just keep playing and keep playing hard. I think he showed that we can win that way, and he’s a guy that, even through tough times, stays positive.”
When he retired as a player following the 2003-04 season, Bylsma knew right away that he wanted to be a coach in the National Hockey League.
We buy into his system and play the way he wants – (which is) always play for the next shift, no matter what happens. Just keep playing and keep playing hard. I think he showed that we can win that way, and he’s a guy that, even through tough times, stays positive. - Marc-Andre Fleury on Bylsma
But looking back, he never thought he would get the opportunity this fast – much less accomplish the sorts of milestones he has in his two short years at the helm of the Penguins.RELATED: Bylsma: Two Years on the Job >>
“I did dream of coaching in the National Hockey League. I did think about having good teams,” the Grand Haven, Mich. native admitted. “Did I think it would happen as quick as it did, 52 games into my head coaching career (with WBS that) I get a call from Pittsburgh and did I think I’d be holding the Stanley Cup four months after that? No, I didn’t think that.
“But I hoped and I planned, and I was preparing myself for being a coach in the National Hockey League some day. I thought it might be a couple years into the future, even from now – but all that’s transpired has really been a lot. A lot has happened quickly and success has happened quickly, and the opportunity to coach a great team and great players has happened quickly. I feel very fortunate and blessed for that.”
But while Bylsma may feel gratuitous for the opportunity to coach here in Pittsburgh, the Penguins feel that they’re the fortunate ones by getting to work with him.
“He’s just energetic and fun. It never gets old coming to the rink,” defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “There’s usually something unique about the way practice is presented or what we do during practice ... You need that through a long season.”
It’s certainly a testament to Bylsma and the mentality he’s cultivated in Pittsburgh that the team continues to do well. And Bylsma’s unique approach to the game hasn’t gone unnoticed by those around the league.
In the 2010-11 NHL Player Poll by Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL Players’ Association – which polled 318 players around the league – 21 percent voted Bylsma as the coach they would most like to play for.RELATED
: Hockey Night in Canada/NHLPA Player Poll >>
And while Bylsma does feel that his portrayal on HBO Sports’ “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic” four-part reality series played a role in the voting results, his players don’t.
“I think a lot of guys (in the NHL) have seen that he’s had a lot of success since he’s been a head coach, but I think that the way he’s perceived is not just perception, it’s the way he is,” Goligoski said. “Other guys see that ... I think that’s definitely a credit to him and the person he is and the coach he is.”
Bylsma actually prefers the other questions he garnered votes in – that eight percent of players voted him as the easiest coach to play for, while four percent tagged him as the coach that demands the most out of his players.
“I thought that was interesting,” he said. “I hope that we have expectations and goals and we have a standard, and I think that’s a challenge ... But I also think it’s something you want to be a part of and you come to work with that challenge, and that’s an energizing, passionate thing to be a part of. That’s what I hope is evident in that.”