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Penguins Reflect Winning Mentality of Head Coach Dan Bylsma

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Professional sports head coaches are by nature a highly-regimented breed. Between games, practices, team meals, flights and so on and so forth, they try to maintain the same structure day in and day so their players know exactly what to expect as they prepare to compete at the highest level.

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Many of these coaches elect to keep notebooks or journals detailing their day-to-day routine so that anytime they need to draw on past experiences, they can easily see how they handled a previous situation.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is no different than his peers. In fact, his note-taking days began long before he first stepped behind the bench as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the American Hockey League back in 2004-05.

“I started taking a notebook before I became a head coach, so I have a notebook from every year,” Bylsma said. “You write down certain things about different situations and different players and practices at different times of the year. I have a notebook for every year. I have every practice from every year so if there are certain things from those situations you can go back and draw upon them.”

But what differs with Bylsma, who became just the second rookie head coach in National Hockey League history to take over a team in midseason and lead his squad to a Stanley Cup championship last spring, is that while he jots down notes on a daily basis, he only refers back to them when he feels it is absolutely necessary.

You see, Bylsma believes that instead of always relying on past experiences to help influence his decision-making in the here and now, a coach should instead get a good read on the personality and makeup of his present team and use that knowledge to deal with the situation at hand.

Maybe that means inserting a little-used fourth-liner such as Chris Conner to provide a spark for a crucial Game 6, or readjusting his lines to have Pascal Dupuis skate with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke on a trio which would score three of Pittsburgh’s four goals on a night when they eliminated the Ottawa Senators.

“I think there is a certain part of making a read on this team and this situation and this moment versus going back and saying this is how I have done it for every Game 6 that I have every been involved in as a coach or when I was an assistant coach,” Bylsma said.

“Not every situation is the same and not every team is the same. Not every Game 6 is the same. When you go to a Game 6 in the hotel, what you say to your team is different from previous times. What this team might need or what you think they might need, I try not to get from what has been done in the past.”

Such a strategy has proved wonders for Bylsma since he took over as the Penguins head coach on Feb. 15, 2009. His ability to read what will work best for his team, like the moves mentioned above that he made before Game 6, is a key factor in his team posting a 5-0 record in playoff series the past two seasons, with all five victories notched in hostile environments.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has a 20-10 postseason record and has won all five of his playoff series behind the Pittsburgh bench.
“I have learned from other coaches that is a different team with a different situation,” Bylsma said. “Make sure you are reading that situation rather than say this is how I do it every time at this time of year. Coaches I have talked to take different preparations for the playoffs based upon the character and qualities of their team and the players they have.”

That Bylsma has become such a rising star within the coaching ranks in such a short period is a testament to his hard work, dedication and knowledge of the game. Prior to last season Bylsma had never been a head coach at any level before beginning the season 35-16-1-2 in 54 games with the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Proving that his success in the AHL wasn’t a fluke, Bylsma led the Penguins to an 18-3-4 finish over the final 25 games following his promotion to Pittsburgh, a run which saw the Penguins improve from 10th place in the conference to the No. 4 spot and home-ice advantage in the opening round.

Bylsma and his team picked up this season right where they left off last year, tying for the third-most wins in franchise history (47) while hitting the 100-point mark (101) for the third time in the past four seasons.

Part of the reason the Penguins have been so successful under Bylsma, who just 30 games into his postseason career has a record of 20-10, leaving him two victories shy of Eddie Johnston and three short of equaling Scottie Bowman on the team’s all-time postseason wins list, is just the winning mentality he brings to the table every day.

While some head coaches focus just on the bottom-line – i.e. wins and losses – Bylsma is more focused on the big picture. Bylsma’s mantra is as long as the Penguins are “getting to their game” on a consistent basis, the team will be rewarded more times than not. Fourteen-plus months into his tenure, it’s clear his players believe in the message Bylsma’s preaches.

“I think sometimes when you hear Coach Dan or players on our team say certain things like ‘as long as we are playing our game it doesn’t matter what happens,’” Mike Rupp said. “I think on the outside that kind of looks like what do you mean it doesn’t matter because a win is what you are looking for.

“But with the style of play we are looking for over a seven-game series we have a good chance of winning. I know we have a room full of guys where if Game 1 of the next series we play our game to a T and we don’t win that hockey game – we are feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

Bylsma’s ability to instill this belief in playing the game a certain way – getting pucks in deep on defensemen, trapping the opposition in their own zone for extended stretches and firing a ton of shots on goal – has been a critical factor, even dating back to last year’s postseason, in the Penguins being able to overcome any adversity thrown their way.

“We need to play a certain way,” Rupp said. “There were times throughout the season where we were getting wins but we weren’t playing a good team game. Right now I think we are playing that way. We are playing a way that can wear on teams. It is something different until you get adjusted to it, but I feel we really believe that as far as not worrying the outcome of the game but just worrying about each shift.”

Bylsma has been so successful at getting his players to buy into his message that when the Penguins fell behind the Senators 3-0 in Game 6, he and his assistant coaches didn’t have to give the long-winded pep talk some coaches deliver because the players knew how to positively react to what some would call a dire situation thanks to the message Bylsma relays to his team every day.

“I think the best thing that was said was Matt Cooke getting a goal,” Bylsma said. “I think that was clearly a point where they had established a 3-0 lead. There was certainly some talk on the bench but that goal was huge in getting us right back into the game within two goals. It also changed the momentum and the tide with that shift and goal.

“I think part of the preparation for a seven-game series is knowing we are going to play a certain way that the other team can’t handle or can’t keep up with whether it is physically or speed of the game or playing in the offensive zone. When it was 3-0 and 3-1, it doesn’t matter what the score is, it doesn’t matter what the games are in the series. You just have to keep playing and playing and playing the right way and get to your game so you take the doubt out of the series.”

The Penguins certainly took the doubt right out of their opening-round series with the Senators by scoring the next four goals, including Pascal Dupuis’ game-winner in overtime, to advance to round two. With commander in chief Dan Bylsma leading the way, the Penguins have found their game at the most important time of the season. That has to be a scary thought for whoever stands in Pittsburgh’s way moving forward.

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