He was drafted four picks ahead of Pavel Bure in the 1989 NHL Draft, but scored fewer goals per game over the course of his 429-game NHL career than Sabres “legend” Rob Ray. (Is this the time to be asking, “How?” and not “How many?”)
He shares a birthday (Sept. 19) with late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon and some of his own comedic instincts helped him earn a nickname – “Disco Dan” – that could gain further traction in Western New York given our penchant for a certain annual event, The World’s Largest Disco, which sells out every November in downtown Buffalo.
But most importantly, as he is introduced Thursday as the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, Dan Bylsma brings with him an impressive coaching resume.
He also brings a hunger – after a year on the sidelines – to regain his footing among the game’s winning minds behind the bench.
And he certainly learned, as a player, from some very well respected men in that fraternity.
Among the coaches he played for during the course of his 11-team, 12-year pro career: Larry Robinson, Bruce Boudreau, Bryan Murray, Paul MacLean, Mike Babcock and former Buffalo defenseman John Van Boxmeer. The latter, who continues to serve as a pro scout for the Sabres, had the privilege of coaching Bylsma twice – briefly in Rochester and then for a full season in Long Beach.
He was a thinking man’s player and a student of the game. Just a solid citizen. - John Van Boxmeer
“Character guy, great teammate, fearless shot blocker, would do anything to win,” Van Boxmeer gushed on Thursday. “He was a thinking man’s player and a student of the game. Not loud or boisterous in the room, just a solid citizen.”
And with attributes like that, it came as no surprise to Van Boxmeer that Bylsma would eventually become a coach – and a successful one at that.
It was just over six years ago when Bylsma, in his first season as a professional head coach, was elevated from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League (having gone 35-16-1) to the head job with the parent Pittsburgh Penguins. In the midst of the 208-09 season, the Penguins were struggling to find their way after having lost in the Cup Final of ’08 to Detroit.
Shelly Anderson of the Post-Gazette wrote this on the eve of Bylsma’s first playoff series as an NHL coach:
Bylsma's well-chronicled tweaks to the Penguins' existing system -- adding an aggressive edge and tapping into the squad's speed and drive -- have been well received. That's in large part due to the people skills of a man who, with his father, Jay, has written four books aimed at children and families and heavy on values, sports and his experiences.
"He communicates well with everybody whether it be a serious matter or a joking matter," team captain Sidney Crosby said. "In meetings, he keeps everyone on their toes and gets people involved through questions or hearing other guys' thoughts."
And as most everyone knows, Bylsma’s influence on the Penguins paid off immediately. That 2009 run would end with the hoisting of the Cup on a hot June night in the Motor City after a 2-1, Game 7 win over the Red Wings.
With Bylsma in charge, the Penguins would maintain their status as one of the league’s elite over the next five seasons by posting a regular season mark of 252-117-32.
No coach in NHL history had ever reached 250 wins so quickly. No Penguins coach has ever won more games.
Bylsma earned Coach of the Year honors in 2011 and has never had a regular-season winning percentage lower than .616, which was his first full season with the Penguins in 2009-10.
CSNPhilly.com contributor Casey Feeney posted these insights/numbers pertaining to Bylsma back in mid-April:
During his time in Pittsburgh, Bylsma treated shootouts as the precious point producers they are. His teams practiced breakaways in nearly every practice session. He also held “Mustache Man” competitions monthly, which saw every player on the team take part in the shootout. The last player left to not score would be forced to grow a mustache for the next month.
Not surprisingly, this emphasis in practice led to results in games. In his five full seasons as Penguins coach, Bylsma’s teams posted a 37-11 record in shootouts, easily the best record in the league. For those who say it’s easy to win a skills contest with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens went 4-6 this year under Mike Johnston in the shootouts with the same talent.
The NHL will likely move to 3-on-3 overtime next season, which will negate the shootout to some extent. But if you think coaches won’t be able to scheme and bog down the 3-on-3 game like they have 4-on-4, then you’re not paying attention to the league. There will be plenty of shootouts moving forward.
Yet for the 44-year old Grand Haven, Mich. native, there is much to prove.
The Penguins lost in the Conference Final once and in the first and second rounds twice each in the years that followed the club’s ’09 triumph.
After being let go by the Pens in 2014, Bylsma has done some television work, along with assisting coach Todd Richards behind the bench during Team USA’s recent and impressive run to a bronze medal at the IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic this month.
And one can assume that Bylsma liked what he saw from draft-eligible standout, and Team USA’s third-leading point-getter in the tournament, Jack Eichel.
Eichel is ranked No. 2 in virtually every scouting report in advance of the NHL’s June draft in Florida, with the Sabres holding the second-overall selection.
And with that second pick only weeks away, what will follow will be a second chance at a first impression for the new coach, Dan Bylsma.