Editor’s Note: Lyle Kossis of Pensburgh took the time to write why he believes Dan Bylsma, former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, would be an ideal fit for the Florida Panthers vacant coaching position. Be sure to follow Lyle on twitter: @LyleKossis
News broke this week that Dan Bylsma interviewed for the head coaching job with the Florida Panthers. Dale Tallon was quoted as saying that Bylsma “interviewed strong,” and that he was being seriously considered for the job. With Bylsma so close to the head coaching job in Florida, I’d like to take a look at why he makes sense for the Panthers.
When Bylsma took over the Penguins in 2009, they had just come off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and had expectations to win the Cup that year. The problem was that Michel Therrien—seemingly against all odds—had coached a team led by Crosby and Malkin to 10th place in the Eastern Conference. That put them outside the playoff picture and in a position that was unacceptable to management. So they took extreme action and fired Therrien (a coach they just signed to a three-year deal) and replaced him with Bylsma.
One of the best things Bylsma did is that he made wholesale changes to the system and got the players to buy in almost overnight. One of the ways we can tell this is by looking at the team’s possession totals. In 2007-2008 under Therrien, the Penguins were one of the worst possession teams in the league, sporting a 46.51% FF in score-close situations, which bested only three other teams. The Penguins went on their playoff run thanks to hot goaltending and high shooting percentages, but the problem persisted the following year. The Penguins were again an awful possession team under Michel Therrien in 2009, and they were drowning because the percentages didn’t break in their favor.
Bylsma’s changes were extreme—as were the results. As Nick Emptage has noted, in “terms of increasing puck possession, the best coaching changes since 2007 would be Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh (46.3% Fenwick Close to 52.6%).” To put those numbers in different terms, a 46.3% Fenwick Close would place the Penguins among the five worst teams in the league that year; their jump under Bylsma to nearly 53% would place them comfortably in the top six.
Aside from getting his message through quickly and winning the Stanley Cup (no big deal), Bylsma instituted a system that saw the Penguins routinely finish among the elite teams in terms of puck possession. They maintained this superiority through 2011-2012, coming back down to Earth in the lockout-shortened season when the team had to adjust to life without Jordan Staal. But this year they were back on the right track in terms of puck possession until the team went on a historic run of injuries.
Some Panthers fans could worry that Bylsma only looked like a good coach because he got to coach elite talent. But in 2010-2011, the Penguins lost Crosby and Malkin for the second half of the regular season and had neither of them in the playoffs. Yet the Penguins still finished the year as a really good possession team, and finished 4th in the conference in terms of playoff seeding. The Penguins were also victimized by injuries in 2012 and 2014, but that never stopped Bylsma’s team from qualifying for the playoffs. Apart from Crosby and Malkin, Bylsma knew what he was doing.
The Panthers have elite talent of their own, of course. With Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, and Jonathan Huberdeau, Bylsma will have plenty of players to shape as time goes on. The mandate will no doubt be to turn this team (and those players) into possession monsters who can start reliably out-scoring and out-possessing the opposition. Fortunately, Bylsma seems to get through to the young guys. Early on his tenure with the Penguins, Bylsma was known as a high-energy guy, a persona which meshes well with young talent. That article quoted Jordan Staal as saying that “[e]very morning it seems like [Bylsma’s] got about 10 cups of coffee in him. He’s an exciting guy to meet in the morning.” Staal had more to say:
“I’m usually not a morning guy, but with him, every day seems like a new day and there’s something new to learn. He takes ownership to do that and get everyone else on the same page and be excited about learning and getting better. It’s exciting to drive to the rink and know that’s what you’re coming to.”
The ideal scenario for the Panthers is that this level of enthusiasm carries over and begins to permeate a team that has not found themselves in playoff contention as often as they would have liked. With young players on their roster—a la Jordan Staal in 2010—the potential is there for Bylsma’s message to get through.
Some folks might still be apprehensive because Bylsma was fired, and the lingering question would be: why hire a coach who just failed? I don’t think that that should be a concern. Bylsma is not a toxic former coach like John Tortorella, who seems to destroy the offensive potential of his teams and bring the Rangers (and now the Canucks) clearly out of contender status. I think that Bylsma was largely a victim of a less than ideal roster and practically unattainable expectations in Pittsburgh.
Those issues are less of a concern in Florida, though, which means the scene is set for the Panthers to become a force in the Eastern Conference. If they select Bylsma as their next head coach, they’ll be well on their way.