Of all the people highlighted in HBO’s splendid 24/7 series on the Winter Classic, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma might have come across the strongest. The Pens’ head coach seemed like a warm, positive presence who steadily maintains an impressive (and open) back-and-forth with general manager Ray Shero.
It looks like that back-and-forth will continue for quite some time, because the team handed Bylsma a three-year extension today. That means he will be under contract through the 2013-14 season.
For all their successes in the ’90s, the Penguins rarely had an outstanding coach aside from a brief run with Scotty Bowman – probably the greatest coach in NHL history. To some extent, it seemed like the club just threw out their big guns and hoped for the best.
So it’s not crazy to wonder if Bylsma is putting together a resume as the best coach in the team’s recent history. Obviously, he helped the team take one step further than Michel Therrien did by winning a Stanley Cup in 2009, but his overall body of work is already a thing of beauty for the franchise.
Bylsma has an overall record of 104-52-19 with the Penguins and has the highest winning percentage (.649) of any coach in franchise history. He also is tied with the legendary Scotty Bowman for the team record in playoff victories (23) and playoff series wins (five).
This season, Bylsma has led the Pens to a 39-21-8 record for 86 points – tied for third place in the overall NHL standings – despite having seen his team already lose 265 man-games to injury. That includes Staal missing 39 games, Crosby missing 27, Malkin missing 25, Chris Kunitz missing 15, Mark Letestu missing 13 and Brooks Orpik missing 12.
The Penguins currently lead the NHL in penalty-killing efficiency (86.8 percent) while ranking fifth in team goals-against average (2.41) and tied for fifth in one-goal wins (19). They’re also tied for seventh in goals scored.
One thing to note about the Penguins’ impressive work without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is that their absence allows Bylsma to run his system as purely as possible. Bylsma was a marginal (at best) NHL player who earned every rep at the pro level by working hard and making intelligent decisions. In many ways, this current, almost star-free rendition of the team is the perfect embodiment of Bylsma’s system and his own game.
Even if this hard-working but hardly scoring edition sputters in the playoffs, it’s been an impressive piece of work by Bylsma. The Penguins’ front office will keep Bylsma, Shero, Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and other essential pieces together for the mid-term future, which makes sense considering their success during the last few seasons.
It’s hard to fathom the team regretting this decision, but you never know in this ever-changing league.