Dan Bylsma is the coach for whom a majority of players have said they want to play. He is the coach that would have been hired by the New York Rangers had the Penguins cuts times with him last summer. He is the coach USA Hockey has tasked with bringing home gold for the first time since that Miracle year of 1980.
He is also the coach that a lot of people – at least the ones that make a habit of social-media mingling – seem to think is, at best, only adequate for the Penguins.
This is what adequate has looked like this season: Bylsma has steered the Penguins to a 47 points through 34 games, a pace for 113. He has done this despite…
*a top four on defense that has played fewer than four full periods together;
*a third line centered by Brandon Sutter, but also featuring 10 different wingers;
*a 40-goal scoring winger, James Neal, who has missed 15 games because of injury and the last three because of a suspension;
*a slow start, by his standards anyway, from center Evgeni Malkin, who had only nine points in October;
*a backup goalie, Jeff Zatkoff, who had never played in the NHL before this season;
That is not even half of it, actually.
The Penguins have been carrying no fewer than five AHL regulars on their 23-man roster for almost five weeks.
The Penguins are also working through a complete overhaul of their defensive scheme from the last four seasons. They have transformed from an own-zone, defense-to-defense breakout to a left-wing lock that emphasizes neutral-zone play.
The Penguins just won at Detroit – and, OK, that does not mean as much as it once did – despite finishing the game with only five defensemen, none of them top-four regulars, and without Malkin.
Bylsma is not a prefect coach, but he is having his best start to a season – and this is a guy that was recognized as the NHL’s best about three years ago.
His best maneuver for this season actually happened last June, when he declared Marc-Andre Fleury his starter only days after the Penguins’ playoff run ended with Fleury have served only mop-up duty to Tomas Vokoun in the last 11 games.
Had Bylsma lost Fleury then, the Penguins would be struggling along with the rest of the lousy Metropolitan division right now.
Instead, despite an injury situation that makes the 2010-11 season seem breezy, they are running away from that sorry pack.
The challenges ahead will include not overextending role players or younger players such as Olli Maatta and Simon Despres, who, by the way, has looked awesome this past week.
Hmmm… maybe Bylsma has the right idea insisting that Despres, a former first-round pick, would benefit from more seasoning in the AHL to start this season.
Anyway, Bylsma – like his franchise players, including Fleury – will be judged by how the postseason goes. That is the standard for this organization.
Still, even his critics look foolish right now by not acknowledging a job well done to start this peculiar Penguins’ season.
>> The past 10 days have been brutal for any fan of hockey, at least fans that are sick of apologizing for liking the NHL. It seems as though the Player Safety department is scheduling a discipline hearing every other day.
Smarter people than me will say whether Player Safety is going a good job, but to suggest Brendan Shanahan did not try setting a precedent by handing a 15-game suspension to Boston’s Shawn Thornton would ignore recent NHL history for treatment of players without prior history of offenses.
Thornton sure seems like he is going to explore becoming the first NHL player to seek use of a neutral discipline arbitrator. That is probably because Shanahan ignored his past history with this ruling.
Do not for a second think the kind words paid to Thornton by Bylsma and Penguins GM Ray Shero on Saturday afternoon were not with the expectation that Thornton and the Bruins are going to fight Shanahan’s ruling.
The Penguins and Bruins knew Saturday morning of the Shanahan’s decision. They spent the time between then and their late-afternoon public comments – the Bruins’ coming in the form of short-and-sweet statements – carefully choosing every work, likely getting them approved by legal experts.
Shanahan should welcome any fight from the Bruins and NHLPA, that latter which is not wrong to press the NHL on Thornton’s suspension.
This is a necessary fight, and hockey will benefit – at least, hockey at the NHL level.
However, take a good, long look at Shanahan’s supplemental discipline decisions this season. He is making good on his pledge to try changing the way this game is played by players that clearly do not seem to respect one another.
His is not an easy fight.
Whatever you think of his decisions regarding discipline, you cannot accurately state Shanahan is not seriously fighting for changing the culture.
>> Josh Yohe and I tag-teamed this story on the Thornton developments from Saturday: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5251827-74/thornton-orpik-nhl#axzz2nWLGV9Pu
>> Dejan Kovacevic opines on that ruling: http://blog.triblive.com/dejan-kovacevic/2013/12/14/instant-column-nhl-declares-open-season-for-assaults/
>> Oh, by the way… a game was played Saturday by the Penguins, and it might have been their most impressive win of the season. Yohe’s GAMER: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5226110-74/penguins-malkin-injury#axzz2nWLGV9Pu
>> Detroit/Canada coach Mike Babcock made a note to name Chris Kunitz among the Penguins’ great players. Well, the Olympics are in about six weeks: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5226112-74/babcock-kunitz-team#axzz2nWLGV9Pu
>> Jonathan Bombulie’s AHL report, which you should always read – though Jonathan is this close to writing about Wheeling instead of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5224754-74/thompson-games-six#axzz2nWLGV9Pu
>> And, finally, with the salary cap about to spike, my Sunday Insider looks at how that might impact the Penguins: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5224764-74/cap-million-shero#axzz2nWLGV9Pu
Be EXCELLENT to each other,