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New coach brings the will to win

After all the chatter behind the microphones was finished Thursday, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray was speaking off to the side to a handful of reporters when I asked him if his coaching search demanded a name with experience.

We all know about Mike Babcock. Murray confirmed he had a telephone conversation with Todd McLellan before the former San Jose coach became Connor McDavid’s new boss in Edmonton, and also said before the World Championships he spoke to Dan Bylsma. Then Murray uttered a crucial buzzword for the day.


The Bills sure got it when they hired Rex Ryan and it’s clear Terry Pegula wanted to strike again. Babcock certainly would have been the biggest name of all in that area, but Bylsma has plenty of it too.

The Sabres had to hire Bylsma. Bylsma had to take this job. The only surprise is what took so long for it to happen after Babcock jilted Buffalo.

And if Bylsma and Jack Eichel rate as “consolation prizes,” this offseason is off to a pretty good start.

“I didn’t go into this thinking experienced but I do use the term ‘10,000 hours of practice’ a lot though,” Murray said. “So I guess that does mean experience to me.”

Even at just 44 years old, Bylsma has it. He won a Stanley Cup in 2009 just three months after the Pittsburgh Penguins promoted him from the American Hockey League. There’s very few people in the entire Buffalo organization that have done that. Murray hasn’t. The only player is captain Brian Gionta.

After he won a Cup, Bylsma had four 100-point seasons, every full campaign he coached for the Penguins. He got fired last May after winning 51 games and posting 109 points.

You want some Buffalo comparisons to that? In 44 seasons, the Sabres have won at least 51 games just twice (2005-06 and 2006-07). They’ve eclipsed 109 points just four times: The two aforementioned seasons as well as the 1974-75 Cup finalists and the 1979-80 team that fell two wins shy of the final.

Bylsma got shown the door. Those are standards, even if they are unfair ones. Still, Bylsma insists this job isn’t about proving the Penguins or anyone else wrong.

“I don’t look at it that way at all,” he said. “I look at it as the opportunity to come to an organization, develop with this team and develop a winning culture on a winning team. I’m not coaching to prove anything to anybody else.”

Uh-huh. Don’t believe him for a second. Just ask his new general manager.

“Everybody that gets fired is motivated by it,” Murray said. “It may not be a motivation that he wants to share with you. He maybe doesn’t want to air dirty laundry and that’s his right, but we’re all motivated after a firing. When I wasn’t renewed in Anaheim after I thought I had two of my greatest years as a scout, I was highly motivated to prove that I could still do it at a high level.

“He’s been out a year, it was a good year for him to be out and he did a lot of things that he wasn’t able to do before. A lot of them included hockey and he comes back now to prove to the hockey world and the rest of the coachess around that he has it. Whatever happened in Pittsburgh after a 50-plus-win season and getting fired that in his mind maybe it shouldn’t have happened and it did. You know me. It’s move on to the next thing all the time. This is his chance to move on to the next thing.”

Naysayers are quick to point out that Bylsma won only one Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era and that’s true. But it’s also the same number of Cups the exulted Babcock won in Detroit with Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

That key point was pretty much glossed over during last week’s pep rally/press conference in Toronto.

So Bylsma has cachet and he’s got motivation. Now he’s got to build a team and produce a culture. He used that word several times, and it’s something plenty of people dismiss as easily fixable with winning players.

That’s only true to an extent. Anyone who spent a few minutes around the Sabres last season – let alone the regular media members who were there on a daily basis for months on end – can tell you the culture of that dressing room was poisoned and in need of an immediate transformation.

As Murray said, a Cup-winning coach like Bylsma can teach everyone in the organization to “think like winners, eventually act like winners and become winners.”

Bylsma’s yearlong hockey retreat since his firing has seen him pore over NHL game tape, travel to talk to pro and amateur coaches, do some television work and serve as an assistant at the World Championships.

He’s said he has extensively studied the burgeoning field of hockey analytics and cited the four remaining teams still playing – the Rangers, Lightning, Ducks and Blackhawks – as great examples of how those numbers translate. The Sabres, of course, were the worst team ever in analytics numbers and Bylsma knows that too.

“We have great room for improvement so we have that ahead of us and we will,” he said. “The key to puck possession is being able to defend, doing it quickly and being great at transitioning the other way. By defending better, we will be better in the other end. Our analytics will improve by being that type of team.”

Translation: Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, Zach Bogosian and Nikita Zadorov will be asked to be horses with the puck and lead the attack. Bylsma cited Buffalo’s young defense corps as a key plus when he evaluated the Sabres and talked to other hockey people about the club.

For Pegula and Murray, being able to get a coach like Bylsma has to be a huge sigh of relief. There were plenty of questions about the organization’s inner workings after the Babcock affair, and those questions remain. Getting snubbed again would have been a massive hit to the franchise’s credibility.

If the Sabres are really trying to win next season – praise be – proven success behind the bench is required. This hire had to be the guy the Sabres were confident could be the coach that has them someday playing hockey deep into the spring. Bylsma has been there, done that.

And with stars too. It looks like he’s going to get the chance to coach another one in Eichel.

“You have a chance to see a guy who’s going to be an elite player,” Bylsma said, referring to Eichel’s matchups in Prague against the likes of Malkin. “Jack’s going to be a good pick for anybody who does take him.”

There was a clear glint in Bylsma’s eye and a small smile on his face when he uttered that last crack. Pretty clear Bylsma thinks the kid from Boston is a huge piece to someday get his coaching career back to where it was.

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