Pens Coaching: Time for a Change

Dan Bylsma’s coaching in Pittsburgh couldn’t have started any better than it did. After coming in as interim head coach midseason in 2009 with the team in tenth place, the Pens rallied for a playoff spot and won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992. Unfortunately, the Pens have lacked postseason success in the years that followed and despite winning the first two rounds this year, we are once again witnessing a collapse that has a lot to do with coaching. I was a big fan of Bylsma when he came in in 2009. Even when the Pens came up short the next two seasons I gave him the benefit of the doubt. In 2010 we ran into a hot goalie in Jaroslav Halak, and in 2011 we played without Sid and Geno. However, 2012 against Philadelphia was different. We witnessed the Pens lose their composure and disregard defensive responsibilities. Multiple people brought up possibly making a coaching change at the end of last season, but like most people, I was still living in 2009 and was willing to give him another year. So now it’s a year later and once again the Pens find themselves down three games to none in a series. I’ll go into detail as to all the reasons why in a bit, but bottom line is, that if the Pens lose this series it’s time for a coaching change.

Before I go into all the reasons I believe a coaching change is necessary I want to address the most common response from Bylsma’s supporters. I find that those that refuse to consider a coaching change would be best for the team are very similar to the Fleury fangirls who, even after Vokoun’s proven that he should be the starter, go back to an event that happened four years ago to defend their favorite player/coach. Since Bylsma defenders are so quick to bring up the fact that he led us to the Stanley Cup in 2009, let’s do exactly what they want and go back to 2009. When the Pens won the cup they were still mostly under Therrien’s system. This system demanded attention to detail on defense and composure and discipline. Therrien’s system was also very good at finding a healthy balance between defensemen joining the rush and hanging back. There were also limited stretch passes. Playing in this style is what won us the Cup. If you’ve been reading my description of Therrien’s system and thought to yourself, “hey, that’s exactly what the Pens need to do better in this series” then you’re absolutely right.

Flaws in the System
The flaws in Dan Bylsma’s system strongly tie into what I just discussed. There is nothing wrong with playing an offensive style, but it has to balance out. You can’t completely neglect defensive responsibilities. Under Bylsma, defensemen have not had discipline when it comes to defense. Several goals in the past few playoffs have been caused by defensemen leaving their man and neglecting their defensive assignments.

Also, under Bylsma, composure and discipline have completely gone out the window. This was especially evident during the Philadelphia series last year and has been a problem so far this series. The Pens lack of composure has cost us games and possibly entire series. This is on the coach. As the leader in the locker room you have to communicate clearly to your players that they need to stay composed on the ice and not play into the other team’s hands. Obviously he didn’t get that point across because we saw the exact opposite thing happen the past two years. There is a difference between playing physical and getting out of control, and I’m not confident that Dan knows the difference. Or at least he doesn’t know how to communicate the difference to his team.

2013 and the Misuse of Talent
I read a great tweet yesterday. It read, “The Pens getting swept is like Bylsma bringing a Ferrari to a soap box derby and not winning.” I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such as misuse of talent, and it all stems from a lack of team chemistry. While the Pens’ roster looks like that of an all-star team, all-star teams only work if they learn to play within a system. I understand when knew guys are brought in it’s expected that there will be an adjustment period, as well as there should be. No one can be expected to learn a new system instantly. However, what worries me is that I’m not sure how much we’re even trying to teach newcomers the system. When Iginla first came to Pittsburgh he played the same day as his flight landed. He hadn’t been able to have a true practice with the team before his debut. Following the game he was asked about how much he tried to cram the system into his head before the game. He replied that Bylsma had told him to just go out and see what he can do. This is reasonable for his first game. The team was rolling at the time and the Pens won the game. What worries me is that it doesn’t look like much has changed.

At the trade deadline a valid description of Iggy would have been: a skilled playmaker that isn’t afraid to play gritty and go to the net, very capable on the power play and can fight if he needs to. Basically, a perfect description for a winger for Sid. When Iginla was traded to Pittsburgh, Sid was still out with his broken jaw. He was instead put on a line with Malkin and Neal as a left wing. It didn’t take long to realize they had no chemistry. Wingers need to be good compliments to each other. Neal and Iggy are not. More importantly, Geno and Neal rely on being able to read each others minds. which leaves the question, why would you throw a new guy on his off wing on a line that relies on that type of chemistry? Kunitz proved last year that he is more than capable of playing on that line. Now that Sid is back, Iggy should be playing on his right wing with Dupuis on the left. Bylsma went with those lines for the final two games of the Islanders series and I thought he had finally figured it out, but for some reason Iggy found himself back on the second line with Malkin and Neal. As a coach you need to realize when something isn’t working and make adjustments. You also need to simplify the game. Bylsma’s system takes way too long to pick up and you can’t expect new guys coming in to fit right in right away. That’s why he needs to simplify players’ roles and let Iggy be a guy that can go to the net on Sid’s line.

Bylsma and the Stifling of Development
When you look at the Pens lineup on paper it looks as though we have tremendous depth. The Pens do indeed have depth, but not all of it is being utilized properly. This is especially evident when looking at the number of games played by Simon Despres and Beau Bennett during the regular season. Both of these guys will eventually be constants in the lineup, probably next season. They’ve also both seen playing time so far in the playoffs. However, Bylsma didn’t play them hardly enough in the regular season. He should have been grooming both of these players throughout the season to be ready to go for playoffs. After all, that’s what the regular season is for. How are we supposed to develop players if we don’t play them? If you think about it, who on the team has Bylsma developed from a draft? Despres and Bennett are the two guys that have been drafted since Bylsma took over at coaching that have been in the lineup and neither of them are being developed correctly. There were several times during the regular season where I felt that Bennett should have just been sent back to WBS because he wasn’t being played or he was being misused. I expect Despres and Bennett, especially Despres, to be in the starting lineup on a nightly basis next season. They have the talent and ability to do so, but they have not been developed correctly. I’m fine with wanting to win now, but as a coach you can’t completely neglect the future.

Lack of Adjustments
In hockey there are two types of adjustments: changes to the lineup and in-game adjustments. Bylsma’s lack of both have been extremely frustrating in these playoffs especially. First lets look at adjustments to the lineup. Again, Iginla isn’t playing on the line that he should be. He is also not being used correctly on the power play. The power play has seen so many different looks I’m not sure anyone knows what our top unit is anymore. What I do know is that, despite the large amount of turnovers we’ve seen, Dan continues to play Geno and Letang on the points. The two of them back there is a turnover waiting to happen. Play Iggy and Martin on the points with Kunitz and Crosby down low and Geno on the half wall. On a different note, our defensive pairings are a mess. Matt Niskanen, while consistent throughout the regular season, has been awful these playoffs. Right now he does not deserve to be in the lineup. I would love to see Despres take his place, and he should, but like I said in the previous section, Bylsma has done nothing to help Simon be playoff-ready. I think Despres would be a great change to the lineup though, and I wish they would play him. Also, Bylsma has been playing Engelland and Murray on the same line. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like a line that’s allergic to speed. They’re both slow and need to be paired with a faster defenseman.

Now onto in-game adjustments. What concerns me most about the way this series has gone so far is that we seem unprepared for a team we had a week to prepare for. Boston plays a 2-3 trap defense and we continue to run stretch passes. It is not going to work. It never will. Therefore, adjustments need to be made in order to score a goal. As a coach you can’t wait until the game is over to make changes. You need to be able to make in-game adjustments and communicate to the team that they need to either carry the puck into the zone or dump and chase. Furthermore, if they are going to dump and chase they need to make sure they are quick to the forecheck. Last night’s game was a large improvement. However, we can’t wait until we’re down 2-0 in a series to make adjustments. They needed to be made halfway through game one. Adjustments weren’t made and it cost us.

Lack of Effort
When those in favor of a coaching change bring up the team’s lack of effort as a reason for a change a typical response is that he can’t make the players try harder and that he doesn’t play. I just want to ask those people that think that way what they think a coach is for then. The goal of the coach is to get the best from his players. Dan’s not accomplishing that. Sometimes I think the Pens just need to be yelled at Tortorella or Boudreau style. I doubt Bylsma has ever done that. To be honest, I think he’s just too soft. He needs to be willing to call them out. Remember when Therrien called out the Pens defense? “Der goal is to be de worst defense in de league. Dey act like dey care, but dey don care.” At some point Bylsma needs to realize when his team isn’t playing well and actually get angry. He’s not there to be everyone’s best friend. He’s there to be the coach. It’s all about winning. He needs to demand more, and if they don’t meet his demands he needs to angry.

The Arrogant Nature of the Pens Locker Room
There’s no worse feeling in the world than being told you need to get over yourself. However, that’s exactly what the Pens need to do. They need to realize that they are not entitled to anything. When I think of the Pens I think of the scene in Miracle after the game against the Norwegians where Herb Brooks has the guys skate until they’re sick. At one point Brooks yells, “You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” This is how I feel about the Pens most days. Forget the ghost of Lord Stanley telling Nicklas Backstrom about car insurance. I think we need the ghost of Herb Brooks to scream this at every guy in the locker room. This quite frankly arrogant attitude stems from coaching. I’m not saying Bylsma is an arrogant person. He seems like a great guy. He does, however, have a very arrogant coaching style, which can be seen in the lack of adjustments. I thought the
manner in which we lost to Philly last year would have been humbling. I thought it would have made us realize that we have to work for every win. However, we’re seeing a similar situation take place this series against Boston. If there wasn’t an arrogant attitude in the locker room they would be playing differently than they did a year ago. The point is, they are unwilling to change; and it’s costing them games and series. I once had a volleyball coach that told me that you have to be more willing to change than you are willing to lose. It seems like the Pens are more willing to lose games than they are willing to change their attitudes and play.

I’m not bashing the Pens. I absolutely love them, but that’s why I’m willing to call them out. They won’t win another cup until they face the fact that changes need to be made. They can’t just think they’re good enough to win. They have go out there and earn it.

In Conclusion
The Pens need a change. They are too talented a team not to win a Cup simply because they are unwilling to make changes. This starts from the top down. I think a coaching change is necessary unless the Pens make history and comeback against the Bruins. I also think a massive roster overhaul will happen this offseason. This is mostly because of the reduced salary cap and the large number of free agents, but it could be helpful. In conclusion, Bylsma’s lack of adjustments, misuse of talent, and inability to get the best from his players calls for his removal.

2 thoughts on “Pens Coaching: Time for a Change

  1. Captainsass87

    Hey Jordan, it’s Bailey! LOVED this article! As always, your analysis is spot on, well thought out, well articulated, and well supported. The arrogance really is the crux of the situation. How many times have we heard Dan and the players this year say, “we just gotta stick to our game and our system and good things will happen”? Yes, sometimes that works. Against inexperienced Islanders and Senators teams. But when it fails to work 3 games in a row against an incredible Bruins team and you continue to think that eventually your system will win out, that’s the definition of arrogance.

  2. AMH

    Very articulate and reasoned critique of Bylsma’s coaching style. While I do think he is a good coach, the lack of adjustment to changing circumstances is alarming, and is in great part what led to the sweep.


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