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.

After reportedly trying to trade him, Rangers put McIlrath on waivers

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 25:  Dylan McIlrath #6 of the New York Rangers takes the puck as Matt Moulson #26 of the Buffalo Sabres defends at Madison Square Garden on January 25, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Rangers are rolling the dice that Dylan McIlrath won’t get claimed. They’ve put the 24-year-old defenseman on waivers, not long after reportedly trying to trade him.

McIlrath was the 10th overall draft pick in 2010, a selection that many felt was a reach by the Rangers. Six years later, he’s yet to establish himself as a regular in head coach Alain Vigneault’s lineup.

The big blue-liner has appeared in just one game this season, and he only logged 9:14 in it. Vigneault seems to have chosen offseason trade acquisition Nick Holden over McIlrath.

Despite the Rangers’ inability to trade him, it would not be a huge surprise if McIlrath gets claimed. His possession stats were solid last season, and defensemen with size and toughness are still coveted in today’s faster NHL.

McIlrath’s cap hit is $800,000. He can become a restricted free agent this summer.

Blues put Paajarvi on waivers

Magnus Paajarvi
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The return of Jori Lehtera was a welcome development in St. Louis — well, welcome for everybody but Magnus Paajarvi.

With the Blues needing to clear a roster spot for Lehtera, Paajarvi was placed on waivers on Thursday, per Sportsnet.

The decision comes after Paajarvi appeared in three games for St. Louis this season, scoring once while averaging just over nine minutes per game.

He has not dressed since an OT loss in Vancouver back on Oct. 18, though, as the team has recently opted to play Dmitrij Jaskin up front.

(Ty Rattie, who’s also been out of the lineup since the Vancouver game, is apparently sticking around St. Louis for the time being.)

Paajarvi has been down the waiver road before, getting exposed by the Blues on a few occasions. Even though he’s still relatively young (25 years old), on a cap-friendly contract ($700,000) and has nearly 300 games of NHL experience, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he gets claimed — especially since teams have had the opportunity to snag him before, and passed.

Not long after news of the Paajarvi waiving broke, the Blues announced Lehtera was officially activated from IR. He’ll be available for selection tonight when St. Louis hosts the streaking Red Wings, who’ve won five straight.

A group wants to build an arena in Scottsdale, but the Coyotes don’t seem interested

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 09:  Fans line up outside of Gila River Arena before the NHL game between the Arizona Coyotes and the Winnipeg Jets on October 9, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Jets defeated the Coyotes 6-2.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes still don’t have a place to play next season, and based on a report, they don’t seem very interested in working with a group that wants to build a new arena in Scottsdale.

From Arizona Sports:

Multiple sources said the developer group working with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community had a meeting scheduled with the Coyotes the day after the team’s Faceoff Luncheon and the day before the season opener on Oct. 15 to discuss the possibility of the Coyotes playing there, but the Coyotes cancelled the meeting at the last minute for unspecified reasons. No make-up date has been scheduled.

When reached Wednesday evening, Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc had this to say: “Throughout this process we have had a number of groups solicit our involvement. This particular group and site are not one with which the Coyotes are working.”

Why the Coyotes don’t have interest in this particular project isn’t clear. It may be they’re 100 percent focused on another site, or it may be the deal just isn’t right for them.

But they’ll need to figure something out soon. Their lease at Gila River Arena expires after this season, and while they could probably extend that for a few years while a new arena gets built, they’ve been adamant that they’ll be leaving Glendale as soon as possible.

Certainly, this week’s news out of Seattle won’t quell the speculation that the Coyotes could be on the move, even if ownership has insisted over and over that the team has a bright future in the desert.

Sens: Lazar will ‘benefit’ from AHL stint, no timetable for return to Ottawa

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 11: Curtis Lazar #27 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Colorado Avalanche during an NHL game at Canadian Tire Centre on February 11, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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This probably isn’t the way Curtis Lazar saw things going.

Lazar, who Ottawa took 17th overall in 2013, is currently plying his trade for the Sens’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, after missing extensive time during training camp and the preseason with mono.

He was sent down on Oct. 11, and he might as well get comfortable.

Despite the fact he’s played nearly 150 career games at the NHL level, there’s no plan to bring Lazar back anytime soon.

“We’re not going to make any immediate decisions on Curtis,” Sens GM Pierre Dorion said, per the Citizen. “the best thing for Curtis is to go down there and play, and play as well as he can play.

“He can play in all situations, and I think it’s the right thing to do. Let him get confidence and when the time comes we’ll call him back up, but there’s no timetable to call up Curtis.”

Dorion acknowledged the club had previously toyed with the idea of sending Lazar down to the minors.  The 21-year-old was drafted to be an “impact” player for the Sens but, through his rookie and sophomore campaigns, played in more of a complimentary role, scoring just six goals per season while averaging 12:54 and 13:52 TOI per game.

So far, the plan of growing Lazar’s presence and role in Bingo seems to be working. He has two goals through four games, and scored the game-winner against Utica earlier this week.