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Game of the Week preview: Dan Bylsma keeps Pittsburgh winning without their biggest stars

When you’re the head coach of a high profile team, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get the best out of your team. This is no exception for Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma. When you take away his two best players from the lineup, those expectations aren’t lowered at all. Bylsma having to make due without Sidney Crosby for an undetermined amount of time thanks to a concussion and the rest of the season and playoffs without Evgeni Malkin makes life tremendously more difficult for the Pens bench boss but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the standings or the results since they’ve been out.

The Penguins sit in second place in the Atlantic Division just four points behind Philadelphia for the top spot. That also puts them four points behind the top spot in the Eastern Conference and currently in the fourth seed in the East.  That’s good for home ice in the first round of the playoffs should they stay there and hold off Tampa Bay.

Just how is Dan Bylsma able to keep the Penguins rolling along in spite of injuries to two of the best players in the game? Familiarity. The Pens have had to rely on numerous guys from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre-Scranton from the likes of Mark Letestu to Dustin Jeffrey to Chris Conner. Letestu has seized the opportunity and made himself a valuable contributor. Jeffrey for a stretch this year was the AHL’s leading scorer and with Malkin and Crosby out he’s gotten a chance to show he belongs in the NHL, something which knowing Bylsma from his days in the AHL helps out.

“He brings an enthusiasm to the rink, and something new every day,” Jeffrey said. “When you see a guy who’s genuinely excited to be here every day to teach us, to be on the ice with us, I think it’s contagious. You see with our team the way we play, it’s almost a reflection of the way he carries himself and the way he brings himself to the rink.”

We can recall seeing how Bylsma is with the players from HBO’s 24/7 series and how the young Penguins gravitate towards him and how his mutual respect of all the guys in the room really rubs off on everyone. Bylsma is one of the younger coaches in the NHL and he’s not so far removed from playing in the league. Having a guy like that that can teach and also be a players’ coach is rare to get these days in the league.

Bylsma has also been the watchful eye over the huge seasons that Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang are having at their respective positions. Fleury has been the Penguins best player all season long and while he’s not likely to get much consideration for the Vezina Trophy, he’s been outstanding and virtually flawless all season long. With the Penguins offense unable to generate the goals they normally would without Crosby and Malkin, Fleury has had to be a lot better of late and he’s done so. With a 2.35 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, Fleury’s been incredible this year. After the first month while he was playing shaky in goal, some wondered if perhaps it would be a season-long roller coaster for him. That hasn’t happened and he’s been great.

Letang has only been the Pens leading scorer while Crosby’s been out and he’s doing it from the blue line. With the added responsibility of having to try and lead the defensive corps Letang’s been an offensive spark plug scoring 46 points this season. With eight goals and 38 assists, he’s the guy that’s more often than not getting it together from the blue line. With guys like Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek surrounding him while Brooks Orpik is out with injury, Letang has shined in that role this season. It’s no coincidence that this is all happening under Bylsma’s tutelage.

It’s scary to think what the Penguins would be able to do with a healthy Crosby and a healthy Malkin this year as the Penguins have been emulating their football team playing a blue collar tough brand of game. They’re not flashy, but they can’t afford to be now. Instead, the Pens are one of the hardest working and physically tough teams to deal with in the league. Considering the role Bylsma played while he was in the NHL as a checking center, it’s no surprise that he’s been able to teach his team that edge. Keeping a team afloat and winning consistently without its best players is a tremendous feat and one that makes the Peguins ever more dangerous come playoff time.

Devils’ Merrill undergoes shoulder surgery, out four months

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 04: Jon Merrill #7 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Detroit Red Wings at the Prudential Center on January 4, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 1-0.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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New Jersey d-man Jon Merrill, who struggled through an injury-riddled campaign, has undergone successful shoulder surgery with an expected recovery time of four months, the club announced on Wednesday.

Merrill, 24, only appeared in 47 games this year, first missing time with an arm injury, then suffering a shoulder ailment late in the year.

There was no clear indication if the two ailments were related, but Merrill’s arm injury was on the right side, and surgery was on his right shoulder.

A former University of Michigan standout taken 38th overall in 2010, Merrill enjoyed solid rookie and sophomore campaigns in New Jersey. His second year was especially solid — 14 points in 66 games, averaging over 20 minutes per night — and he boasts good size, going 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Based on the four-month timetable for recovery, Merrill will likely miss parts of New Jersey’s training camp and preseason action.

Max Talbot mulling European options for next season

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After a 10-year career with over 700 games played and one Stanley Cup, Maxime Talbot could be done in the NHL.

Per RDS, Talbot — who’ll hit unrestricted free agency on July 1 — has “some options in Europe” for next season, and is contemplating a move overseas.

In his prime, Talbot was a gritty, hardworking forward with decent touch around the net. He scored double-digit goals four times, including a career-high 19 in ’11-12.

The 32-year-old split last season between Boston and its AHL affiliate in Providence, scoring seven points in 38 games at the NHL level.

Talbot did acquit himself very well with the P-Bruins — 21 points in 26 games — and has some experience playing abroad, having suited up for Finnish League club Ilves Tampere during the lockout.

Based on how things went last year in free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Talbot land in Europe.

The likes of Maxim Lapierre, Curtis Glencross and Marcel Goc all failed to score NHL contracts last summer — Lapierre and Goc proceeded to sign overseas, while Glencross opted to retire.

 

Ex-‘Hawks coach Suhonen takes Austrian national team job

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13:  Thomas Raffl #5 of Austria celebrates with his teammates after Thomas Hundertpfund #27 scored a goal in the first period against Tuukka Rask #40 of Finland during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group B game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Alpo Suhonen, who became the first European-born NHL coach in over 50 years upon taking the Chicago gig in 2000, has been named the new bench boss of the Austrian men’s national team, per IIHF.com.

Suhonen, 67, takes over from former NHL defenseman Dan Ratushny, who was splitting duties between Team Austria and Lausanne of the Swiss League.

Suhonen takes over the national team at a critical juncture. Austria finished a disappointing fourth at the 2016 World Hockey Championship Division 1 tournament — meaning the country finished 20th overall. As the IIHF websites notes, that’s the worst finish for Austria in 86 years of WHC competition.

Looking forward, Austria does have a chance to make amends this summer, when it will play a series of contests to prep for Olympic qualification.

Suhonen inherits a roster with decent NHL pedigree as Thomas Vanek, Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner are all eligible to participate.

That said, Vanek was named to Team Europe’s initial 16-man roster for the World Cup of Hockey, and it remains to be seen how that will impact his national team commitments.

Datsyuk’s agent acknowledges offer from KHL’s SKA, but no deal yet

Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) celebrates his empty net goal against the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Detroit won 5-2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Gennady Timchenko, the billionaire chairman of KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg, reportedly believes there’s a “good chance” that Pavel Datsyuk will be playing for his team next season.

But according to Datsyuk’s agent, Dan Milstein, there’s only been an offer from SKA. Nothing has been signed yet. There could still be offers from other KHL teams for his client to consider.

And at any rate, Milstein insisted once again that Datysuk won’t be making any decisions until he speaks with the Detroit Red Wings in mid-June, after the 37-year-old returns from a family vacation.

Milstein passed along that update to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, plus a few other Wings reporters.

Related: Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options’