Dan Bylsma entered the Penguins spotlight like a lion, but exited like a lamb. No coach in NHL history has made that kind of debut, I’m fairly certain. There was the 18-3-4 conclusion to the regular season in 2009 after he was named coach, the Stanley Cup run later that spring, then the 9-1 start to begin the next campaign. At that point, his record was 43-12-4. (That’s a 125-point pace over 82 games, and 24 of those games were against playoff competition. Wow.)
It wasn’t all downhill from there, but it’s fair to say that the Disco Dan Magic was never again captured by the team that felt like a dynasty, and looked like a dynasty, but really wasn’t a dynasty.
I learned a lot about Bylsma on my first road trip covering the Penguins. It was Oct. 10, 2009, and the Penguins were in Toronto on a Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada at ACC. Showtime. And man, did those Penguins play the part. They beat the Leafs 5-2 that night to improve their record to 4-1.
Following the game, I had finished my article and stood outside of the Penguins locker room while the players made their way through the arena and to the team bus. The setup in Toronto is an interesting one, as fans from the luxury suite area are permitted to stand beside the locker rooms, giving them unparalleled access to the players. As you might imagine, the Penguins were receiving rock star treatment. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Gonchar and Guerin were among the big names to walk by the fans. The players were all friendly, of course, offering smiles and acknowledgment. But they were in a hurry to reach the bus, so stopping for pictures and autographs wasn’t an option. It was, however, an option for their coach.
Bylsma not only acknowledged the fans, but stopped for 10 minutes to pose for pictures. I had two reactions while observing the scene. My first thought was, “This guy is cool. How many coaches would actually stop to hang out with fans like this?” My second reaction? “Man, this guy likes being famous.” I’m pretty sure I was right both times.
I like Bylsma. He was always friendly, always accommodating. And really, what wasn’t to like? He quickly became a star, just like the players he coached. At the time, it seemed he was the perfect coach for that team. From the second he arrived on the scene, he turned a good team into a great one. He showed the way. He was the answer. He was a coaching savant, always providing a unique philosophy and doing so in a likeable manner. So, it was quite impressive to see someone stop and take time to speak with fans, pose for pictures and appear so down to earth.
But maybe that team – and the ones that would follow – didn’t need a rock star as head coach. Maybe they needed someone who didn’t like the spotlight quite as much. Maybe someone who wasn’t distracted by the Olympics, and someone who was so loyal to a system that clearly possessed flaws.
Bylsma never really changed over the years. I ran into him during a tailgate party in the hours before the Pirates beat Cincinnati in the National League Wild Card game. He was posing for pictures with fans, socializing with anyone who wanted to meet the coach. Pretty cool. Not everyone in the public eye is so willing to interact with fans. There is, however, a problem with wanting to be liked, especially when you’re a head coach. His personality with fans mirrored his personality with his players. Eventually, I believe, hockey players will take advantage of such things. They’re generally good guys, but they’re human. Accountability begins to fade. And it did.
I don’t blame Bylsma for any of this, really. Imagine having the success he did in those first few months. You never would have changed a thing, either. No one would have. But that early success became a roadblock, ultimately creating bad habits. The 2009 team was special. Maybe the next few years could have produced special Penguins teams, also, but every team is different and requires adaptation. Bylsma never really changed, and his team never grew up.
If the Florida Panthers are smart, they will hire Dan Bylsma. Seriously. He is a good coach and he is particularly adept at taking a team with an adequate roster (think 2011 Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin injured) and making it a playoff team. That’s exactly what he’ll do in Ft. Lauderdale. It’s what would be best for Bylsma. He could grow as a coach there. In Florida, the community isn’t so interested in hockey. The Panthers don’t boast a galaxy of superstars. They aren’t looking to become a dynasty. They aren’t looking to paint the Mona Lisa, which always seemed to be Bylsma’s desire. In Florida, they’re just trying to win hockey games. Dan Bylsma know how to do that.
He just wasn’t the coach to produce that dynasty.
It’s funny. I still think about that night in Toronto a lot. It was my first ever night on the road covering the Penguins, so of course it will always be fresh in my mind. I remember watching Bylsma after the game that night, thinking he could never lose, that he really was a hockey genius, that he had it all figured out, that his Penguins would be the team of this generation.
Problem is, maybe he thought the same. It wasn’t really all downhill for Bylsma. He’s been wildly successful. His record speaks for itself. But it was time for a change, and the Sunshine State might be the perfect place for him to land.