In 1998-99, the New Jersey Devils posted 105 points and finished first place in the Eastern Conference, but were knocked out in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games. The next season, on March 23, 2000, the Devils had a 41-20-8-5 record and sat first place in the Eastern Conference. And though there were only eight games left in the season, New Jersey had dropped 10 of its past 16, so GM Lou Lamoriello fired coach Robbie Ftorek and replaced him with assistant Larry Robinson.
The Devils won the Cup that season.
When Lamoriello talked to the media about the surprising decision to cut his coach so late in the season, he said “I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I did not think we would come out of this slump...and go forward."
Ftorek’s situation isn’t the same as Dan Bylsma’s currently is in Pittsburgh. Unlike Ftorek, Bylsma has the backing of his players and a Jack Adams on his resume. He’s also dealt with a slew of injuries this year as the Penguins lead the NHL in man-games lost. But in the 14 games since the Olympic break ended, the Penguins have only won six and dropped back-to-back games to division rival Philadelphia. Over that time Kris Letang was obviously missing, but Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal combined to miss only five games. Most of the heavy hitters were playing through most of this stretch.
A lack of discipline has begun to seep back into the Penguins’ game, which the Pittsburgh Tribune’s Rob Rossi wrote is reminiscent of recent post-season failures. And, as Rossi notes, “health has nothing to do with discipline.” After Tuesday’s 3-2 home loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, certain Penguins veterans said the team was lacking pride and passion. To what extent should this fall on the coach in late March?
This playoff season will be a defining one for the Penguins, which THN will explore in our Playoff Preview edition of the magazine. This is a team that was supposed to be making multiple Stanley Cup runs after they won their first in 2009, but has lost more post-season series than it has won since. Can Pittsburgh win with Marc-Andre Fleury? Do they match up well in the playoffs against the NHL’s top teams as they’re currently built? The sense is the Penguins are on a path to another early playoff exit and if that’s what happens, major changes will be on the way.
Starting with Bylsma.
Bylsma won a Cup in his first season behind Pittsburgh’s bench, after he took over from Michel Therrien midway through 2008-09. Therrien had just made it to the final the season before and was within two wins of a championship, but the Penguins were struggling to stay in the playoff race at the time.
But since Bylsma’s championship, he has often been challenged over his in-game management and most recently was in the crosshairs after Team USA’s Olympic letdown.
Teams generally get a positive kick after the shock of a mid-season coach firing. Just this season the Winnipeg Jets won 11 of their first 15 games after Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel.
Given that old bad habits are beginning to leak back into Pittsburgh’s nightly efforts, is there a light at the end of the tunnel, or are Penguins fans bracing for familiar post-season disappointment?
Should the team consider firing Bylsma now to try and meet this potential problem head-on?
There are reasons both for and against making this tough call, though it would be a shocker if GM Ray Shero let Bylsma go before attempting one more run at the Cup.
THREE REASONS TO REPLACE BYLSMA
1. There is coaching experience already in place
When the Devils fired Ftorek, they replaced him with Robinson who was already an assistant on New Jersey’s bench. The Penguins have Jacques Martin on staff, who they hired last summer on Bylsma’s suggestion. Martin doesn’t have a Stanley Cup on his resume, but neither did Robinson as a coach in 2000. In fact, Martin’s coaching track record is much more impressive. Robinson had one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins before taking the head job in New Jersey, while Martin is 11th on the all-time coaching wins list and learned from the legendary Roger Neilsen.
2. Defense wins championships
If the idea would be to replace Bylsma with Martin this late in the game (and it’s probably best to go with his experience rather than bring in a brand new voice from the outside), his style is still in fashion. Team Canada won gold in Sochi with a stifling defense and since then coaches from Darryl Sutter to Ken Hitchcock have pointed to that perfection as a model for success in the NHL as well. Martin’s systems are generally regarded as boring, but in 17 seasons as the head guy behind an NHL bench, Martin’s way has missed the playoffs only four times – and three of those were with the abyss that is the Florida Panthers. In 2009-10 Martin led the eighth-seed Canadiens to the Eastern final, which included an upset of Pittsburgh, so the old guy has even had recent success.
3. This team is supposed to be dominant – and it’s not
When the Penguins arrived in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals against the powerhouse Red Wings, losing the first and winning the second, (unfair) comparisons were being drawn between their rise and that of the Edmonton Oilers in the early 1980s. But each season since, all under Bylsma, has ended in disappointment. In the three seasons before Ftorek was fired by the Devils, New Jersey lost in the second round and in consecutive first rounds. The Penguins did the same after winning in 2009 and even when they made it back to the East final last season, they were completely outmatched (and outcoached) by the Bruins, who remain the team to beat this season. And neither of the two teams Pittsburgh beat out of the playoffs last season will be back this time. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings were also very average until Darryl Sutter was brought in mid-season. He improved the team, got them into the playoffs and they have been one of the most suffocating, patient and dominant NHL teams ever since.
THREE REASONS TO KEEP HIM
1. It’s not guaranteed to work
While the Devils found success moving from Ftorek to Robinson, they did not get the same payoff in 2007 when Lamoriello replaced coach Claude Julien with himself. The Devils were done after the second round that season. While history suggests the Penguins would get an initial bump down the stretch of the regular season, would that continue for another two months through the playoff grind?
Through most of his tenure, Bylsma has had to deal with a roster riddled with injuries, but has never had a problem getting the team into the playoffs. It’s impossible to know if the team would have done considerably worse under a different coach, but that mystery is enough to make you hesitant to abruptly replace a coach who has produced under these circumstances. For all the flak Bylsma receives, the Penguins may not find out what they have until he’s gone – and booting him out before the playoffs could have a devastating impact.
3. Go with what you have now, reassess in the off-season: the safest option
Bylsma is a smart, well-spoken, respected coach who represented the USA at the Olympics this season and won a Cup for the Penguins - plus the players like him. He hasn’t lost the room and he has been doomed with subpar playoff goaltending the past few seasons. Any coach would struggle to succeed with that. Bylsma has been a good ambassador for the Penguins and all this perhaps should be enough to give him one last kick at the can and avoid an in-season dismissal with the team sitting second in the East. If the Penguins fail again this post-season, it’d be time to take a hard look at the coaching and roster situations over the summer.