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Commander and Chief

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff addressed the Penguins players during a team meeting not long after he was dubbed the team’s interim head coach. Bylsma, who had never been a head coach in the NHL before, was still trying to earn the respect of his players and convince them to adopt his aggressive style of play.


“As a coach, when you stand in front of the room and begin to sell, talk and communicate, there’s always a question mark,” Bylsma said.

But this meeting was different than the previous meetings the coaching staff had conducted. This time something had clicked.

It was leaving that meeting that, as a coaching staff, we knew the players were going to buy in. We knew the players were going to buy in and believe in the way we needed to play. I knew at that point we were going to have a positive result and move in the right direction. - Dan Bylsma
“It was leaving that meeting that, as a coaching staff, we knew the players were going to buy in,” Bylsma said. “We knew the players were going to buy in and believe in the way we needed to play. I knew at that point we were going to have a positive result and move in the right direction.”

To say that the Penguins had a positive result and moved in the right direction would actually be an understatement. Bylsma orchestrated the greatest turnaround in franchise history, directing the club to an 18-3-4 finish, a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a first-round triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Bylsma was rewarded for his dramatic achievements Tuesday with a multi-year contract extension and the removal of the burdensome “interim” tag. Bylsma is officially the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the team’s uncontested leader.

“What I was saying early on was that I was going to wait until the end of the year to make a final decision on our coach,” general manager Ray Shero said. “It just became more and more evident to me that Dan was the guy that I wanted to move forward with. So why wait? Timing-wise it was the right thing to do for Dan and his family. With a few days off in-between rounds, it was the right time for our team. It’s very well deserved.”

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It’s been whirlwind year for Bylsma. When he began the season in his first-ever head coaching job with Pittsburgh’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Bylsma never imagined he was a few months away from steering the Pittsburgh Penguins through the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’m the type of person that has short-term and long-term goals,” he said. “At the end of every year, I adjust them. Beginning this year one of my short-term goals was not to coach in the National Hockey League. This certainly happened quicker than I expected.”

Bylsma led the Baby Penguins to an impressive 35-16-1-2 record and rung up his eighth straight victory with the team on Feb. 15 when he received a phone call from Shero.

Shero offered Bylsma a chance to be Pittsburgh’s interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Bylsma accepted the most daunting challenge and grandest opportunity of his career, a symbiotic fusion that would change his life forever.

“I got a call from Ray and he wanted to talk on my office phone,” Bylsma said. “That five minutes was a whirlwind. I wanted to be a coach. I’ve had some good mentors. I anticipated being a head coach in the National Hockey League.”

Bylsma took over a 27-25-5 team that sat in the 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, five points out of the playoffs with only 25 games left. Bylsma’s goal for the final stretch was to convince the Penguins to adopt his aggressive play, change the team’s attitude with his own passion and transform the Penguins into a contender. 

“With the strengths we have, we should be able to go into buildings and make teams deal with the quality of players we have at every position,” Bylsma said on that day in February. “We’re going to try to get the guys on their toes and going, bringing passion and work ethic to game. If we focus on playing back to our strength and get away from the situation it’s been for a while here, you’ll see a team that can compete and be a contending team.”

“He has a lot of passion for the game and it spreads throughout the locker room,” defenseman Hal Gill said. “He’s proven that he can coach a team. I think he’s a good fit for this team. He’s coached a style that I think is good for us.”

Three values that are very important to me for this organization are: work ethic, accountability and passion. Dan and his staff have certainly brought that. - Ray Shero
“Three values that are very important to me for this organization are: work ethic, accountability and passion,” Shero said. “Dan and his staff have certainly brought that. For me, personally, it’s made it a real fun place to come to work for the last couple of months with the play of the team, the locker room, the players, our training staff and our coaching staff. I think it’s been a very good fit so far.”

From Day 1, Bylsma entered the Penguins locker room with a plan on how to get the team to play competitive, up-tempo hockey. But he knew that his most important task would be to win over the players.

“We were a really fragile team,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We had a lot of guys, confidence-wise, that were pretty fragile. It was a make-or-break time of our season. A lot of people even said it was a little bit too late, that we dug ourselves too big a hole. But his approach, he brings so much energy every day. Whether you win or lose, he doesn’t let you get complacent after a win and doesn’t let you beat yourself up after losses. He brings you in and teaches you. Guys are supportive of him. There’s a respect factor from the players for him.”

Shero and Bylsma informed the Penguins players that Bylsma was now their official head coach prior to the team's Tuesday morning practice. The team responded with a hearty ovation and cheers.

“The players have responded to him and his philosophies, his way of getting his point across,” veteran Bill Guerin said. “He knows what guys respond to. He knows how to get through to guys without embarrassing anybody. He’s hard on guys when he has to be and he has a lot of different ways he can approach players.”

Guerin, who has played under countless coaches during his 16-year NHL career, believes that Bylsma’s approach to coaching will evolve into the new world order in the league. 

I think he’s pretty unique. It’s more an open line of communication. I think that’s Dan’s biggest asset. A lot of guys know the game and the Xs and Os. But communication between the players and the coaches is extremely important. He’s got as good a handle on that as I’ve ever seen. - Bill Guerin
“I think he’s pretty unique,” Guerin said. “The way of coaching in the NHL has changed a bit the last couple of years. It’s not the bullying approach that you used to use back in the day. It’s more an open line of communication. I think that’s Dan’s biggest asset. A lot of guys know the game and the Xs and Os. But communication between the players and the coaches is extremely important. He’s got as good a handle on that as I’ve ever seen.”

But to Bylsma, communicating is just common sense and a part of his personality.

“Open communication is more often what we would relate to outside the hockey environment,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate to talk to a guy like Billy Guerin. ‘How are you playing? What are you doing well? Not doing well? What’s your focus going into Game 6?’ I think that’s a healthy thing. It’s also one that allows people to know what they need to do and giving them the opportunity to do it.”

“I really believe in this day and age with coaching and philosophies, there is so much to be said about one-on-one skills, communication skills and knowledge of the game,” said Shero, who has been around hockey his entire life. “You have to sell yourself, sell your ideas and the players have to believe it. They need to trust you as a coach. You have to be the type of person that can earn the trust. I think Dan has done a wonderful job doing that. It’s not an easy thing to do. When you walk into the room you have 25 skeptical hockey players. It didn’t take too long, maybe less than a week, to believe in the change that they saw. From Dan’s standpoint it was a pretty natural fit moving in.”

And Bylsma still remembers that early meeting when those 25 skeptical hockey players came together under his direction. And while he expected to have “positive results,” even Bylsma was surprised at how successful the team was under his watch.

“I’m not sure I could tell you that we were going to be 18-3-4; no one expected that,” Bylsma admitted. “But to the credit to the guys, they were a willing group that bought in. They did so with a little bit of trust but also a lot of hard work. It was early on but it was a key meeting that I knew we were going in the right direction.”

And now the Penguins will be playing under Bylsma’s direction for the foreseeable future.

“When I made a coaching change, one of the things I was looking for was someone that could grow with this team,” Shero said. “He is certainly the guy to do that. I believe with this team, our best days are ahead of us. Dan, as a head coach in the National Hockey League, his best days are ahead of him. I think it’s been a good fit.”
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