As Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes gathered his players and began diagramming a drill on a dry erase board during one of Saturday’s two training camp practices, Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma was at the other end of the ice.
As Hynes spoke, Bylsma was collecting pucks from the corners and guiding them into the net to ready the area for the next drill – just one of the ways he and other Pittsburgh Penguins personnel are helping out at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s American Hockey League training camp at the Ice Rink at Coal Street.
Pittsburgh’s strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar, head equipment manager Dana Heinze and video coordinator Andy Saucier are also in town to assist their organizational counterparts in any way they can as the AHL goes about business as usual.
“You anticipate hockey for a long time in the summertime, getting ready for the season,” Bylsma said. “A chance to get on the ice, see these guys on the ice, work with players in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization – I get excited about that opportunity. I get excited about getting on the ice and I get excited about being a part of coaching our players.”
With the NHL’s work stoppage, Bylsma, Heinze and Kadar asked Penguins general manager Ray Shero and assistant general manager Jason Botterill if they could make the trip to Wilkes-Barre to help out.
And the word that best describes Pittsburgh’s presence in Wilkes-Barre is “seamless.” The teams deploy the exact same systems, with Bylsma and Hynes teaching the exact same fundamentals and strategies throughout the organization – making the transition from the AHL to the NHL as smooth as possible.
“John is leading the way here, but I feel like it’s one big staff regardless of the fact that we have Wilkes-Barre coaches, Penguins coaches, (player development coach) Billy Guerin and soon (assistant to the general manager) Tom Fitzgerald coming in there,” Bylsma said.
“On the ice, the players and the coaches are acting as one and you feel that way in how we’re implementing the systems, how we implement practices, details and habits in our organization. That’s almost seamless. It’s seamless for the players and it’s seamless for the coaching staff as well.”
“That’s another great thing about this organization, they do a great job of tying the NHL to the American League team,” defenseman Dylan Reese said. “The system that coach Bylsma runs is the same that coach Hynes is going to run. In terms of switching back and forth, guys called up or sent down, the transition should be smooth.”
Having Bylsma on the ice certainly serves as a motivation for the players trying to crack the roster – and a source of pride.
“It’s an organization that takes a lot of pride in their AHL club,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said of Pittsburgh. “I think ‘Hynesie’ mentioned a stat about someone in the organization being at almost 80 of 86 games last year. It’s something that makes you feel good as a player, that they take that kind of pride in their affiliate team.”
Overall, the staffs in Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre are in constant communication with each other throughout the season and both clubs have the utmost respect for each other, fostering a real sense of family.
“One thing that is really cool about the Penguins and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins is that it’s a family,” Heinze said. “The relationship I have with (WBS equipment manager) Ted Richards is very unique. We speak on a day-to-day basis. That doesn’t happen everywhere. We are in constant communication with each other, talking about what’s going on. So it’s seamless to come up here and be with these guys. It’s nice.”
And while the players and coaches in WBS appreciate the NHL club’s presence, the Pittsburgh staff members appreciate being around such enthusiasm and passion.
“This is the first time I’ve been to an American League camp in about 10 years,” Kadar said. “It’s refreshing. Guys really prepare the same. They all want to be successful. They all want to get to that next level. The preparation is the same; the attitude is the same as the NHL.”
For Bylsma, who spent two-and-a-half seasons as both an assistant and head coach in WBS before getting promoted to Pittsburgh three years ago, any chance to visit the area where he developed as a coach is something he looks forward to.
“Just driving up the (interstate) 81, I felt real good coming in on Thursday night,” Bylsma said with a smile. “Real excited to be on the ice here, but also (just to be with the people in) the Penguins organization and just the people here in Wilkes-Barre – I’m going to be sad to be leaving come Sunday evening.”