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.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

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To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.

Rick Nash at career crossroads in contract year

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has indeed done a great job managing the team’s salary structure. In that context, it might be tough to justify the idea of extending an aging power forward who will be 34 when his current deal expires next summer.

There are more than a few people who believe that the Rangers would be wise to bring Rick Nash back, however. Just recently, Josh Lipman made such an argument for Fansided and a similar thought surfaced from Jackson Heil of The Hockey Writers.

Of course, wherever Nash goes, he figures to see a decrease in pay – maybe a drastic drop – from the $7.8 million cap hit that expires after 2017-18.

For Nash, it’s a fork in the road during what’s been a somewhat odd career.

Nash is closing in on 500 career goals, as the winger already produced 416 in 989 regular-season games. He’s become quite the specialist in New York, scoring 127 goals vs. 97 assists in 315 contests with the Rangers.

On those playoff questions

As Rangers fans likely know too well, there have been some playoff headaches.

It’s wrong to say that Nash has never enjoyed postseason success. In 19 games during their 2015 run, he managed 14 points. He also had four points in what was otherwise a miserable five-game series for the Rangers against the Penguins in 2016.

His strange run of bad luck resurfaced this past postseason, so for all we know, Nash might not ever fully silence critics regarding his supposed lack of “clutch play.”

Best option available?

When people picture Nash’s future, many envision him hitting the free agent market in 2018.

The Rangers might not be so wise to outright dismiss bringing Nash back, though. New York boasts some nice forwards, but it’s plausible that Nash could remain one of their most reliable snipers, even at an advanced age. Lipman points out that Nash easily outclasses other Rangers during his time with the team from a sniping perspective; while he generated 127 goals during that time, the second-most prolific scorer was Derek Stepan, who only managed 90.

It’s worth noting that, despite being limited to 67 regular-season games in 2016-17, Nash still scored 23 goals. Nash generated 42 goals as recently as 2014-15, which was one of his only healthy campaigns with the Rangers.

Now, it’s rarely safe to assume that a player will become more durable as he ages, so that’s another concern to consider.

Still, if the price is reasonable, Nash brings a lot to the table.

The 2017-18 season stands as a year that could have a huge impact on Nash’s future. The Rangers should at least keep an open mind about being a part of his future beyond this next season.

Butcher not seeking guaranteed NHL roster spot

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Even with numerous suitors lining up to try and sign him, Will Butcher isn’t making any unreasonable demands as a free agent.

Case in point, the 22-year-old defensemen — the same guy who just won the Hobey Baker Award after a terrific senior year at the University of Denver — isn’t saying he needs to play in the NHL next season.

“What ends up winning the day, I’m not sure,” Butcher’s agent, Brain Bartlett, told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we have not told teams that if you don’t have an NHL spot for him in training camp, don’t bother even calling. It’s quite the opposite.”

Perhaps Butcher is using Justin Schultz‘s experience in Edmonton as a guide. Schultz, a highly sought-after college free agent in the summer of 2012, was thrown right into the deep end with the Oilers, and only the Pittsburgh Penguins could save him from drowning.

Not to suggest Schultz made unreasonable demands of the Oilers — he insisted he wasn’t guaranteed ice time — but Edmonton’s blue line was so bereft of talent that he got it all the same.

Given what Bartlett had to say, it may be that Butcher is looking for a team that, above all else, can guarantee his proper development.

The NHL ice time can come when he’s ready for it.

Related: Devils, Sabres, Vegas reportedly in on Butcher

Gorton deserves kudos for Rangers’ rebuild on the fly

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

It’s easy for fans to demand a full-on rebuild when times get tough for their team.

It’s another matter for a general manager to actually commit to years of losing, with no guarantee of brighter days ahead.

For Jeff Gorton, a tear-it-down rebuild was never really an option in New York anyway, even when the Rangers were looking particularly old and worn down. That’s largely because Henrik Lundqvist was signed through 2020-21, and it’s tough to tell your Hall-of-Fame goalie that it’s time to tank.

So the Rangers chose instead to rebuild on the fly.

Two years after replacing Glen Sather, one would have to conclude that Gorton has done a pretty good job in that regard. The Rangers may not be the strongest Stanley Cup contenders next season, but consider:

— Last summer, Gorton was able to use a team with pressure to win now (the Ottawa Senators) to trade Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad, the latter of whom is five years younger.

— A year later, Gorton found another team with pressure to get some immediate results (the Arizona Coyotes) and traded Derek Stepan and backup goalie Antti Raanta for the seventh overall draft pick (Lias Andersson) and Anthony DeAngelo, giving the Rangers two more talented youngsters to add to the stable.

— Gorton, whose team’s future had essentially been mortgaged by his predecessor, has been forced to do a lot of his work outside the draft, and the results have been impressive. His most celebrated move was getting Jimmy Vesey to sign, but he’s also added college free agents like John Gilmour and Neal Pionk, and he got Russian defenseman Alexei Bereglazov out of the KHL.

Throw in the fact the Rangers actually kept their first-round pick this year, selecting Czech center Filip Chytil 21st overall, and the future is looking a lot brighter today than, say, in April of 2016.

Oh, and Gorton was also able to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, the most coveted unrestricted free agent of the summer, to a below-market contract with a term of just four years. So that was pretty good, too.

Admittedly, this path may still lead to ruin — or, if not quite ruin, maddening mediocrity. The Rangers still don’t have a future Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, i.e. the kind of player that typically goes to teams that have bottomed out.

But on the path the Rangers have chosen to take, Gorton has done an admirable job, and for that he deserves credit.