Heading into the semifinals of the Sochi Olympics two years ago, Dan Bylsma was two wins away from affirming his status as one of the rising young coaches in hockey, and a certified American hero.
Bylsma’s U.S. team had rolled into the semifinals, scoring 20 goals in four games. Bylsma was winning over the media with his engaging interviews and his ability to foster a strong team chemistry among his American NHL stars in a short period of time.
I was impressed with Bylsma during the U.S. run in Russia. He struck me as a strong leader and communicator, and I felt he could make a fine head coach for the Sabres one day.
Then it all came tumbling down on him. The U.S. lost to Canada, 1-0, and were a disjointed offensive mess in the process. Bylsma had no answers for a bigger, tougher and faster opponent. Not surprisingly, an emotionally flat U.S. team got humiliated by Finland in the bronze-medal game.
Critics skewered Bylsma for the collapse. It got worse that spring in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when his Penguins lost at home to the Rangers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 lead in the series, scoring just one goal in each of the last three games.
Bylsma, who had won the Cup after taking over as the Pens’ head coach with 25 games left in the 2009 season, had been on thin ice with Pens’ management heading into the playoffs. There were rumors of a falling-out between Bylsma and his players – most notably superstar Sidney Crosby.
So it was no surprise when the Pens fired Bylsma soon after. In the aftermath, there was a barrage of criticism and analysis of his methods. His main offense was playing a basic dump-and-chase attack, chipping the puck into the zone instead of having players carry the puck in.
Bylsma became “the man who played dump and chase with Sidney Crosby.” He also lost three playoff Game Sevens at home in his five years with the Penguins, which didn’t do much for his image as a big-game coach.
So maybe that’s why Bylsma wasn’t such a hot commodity in this year’s NHL coaching searches, why he was still available when just two teams – the Sabres and Devils – were looking to fill head coaching vacancies.
Major events have a way of inflating a coach’s reputation one way or the other. Who knows? If the U.S. Olympic team had won that semifinal over Mike Babcock’s Canada team, Bylsma might have been on a more equal footing with Babcock in the coaching derby this spring.
But those five games – the last two in Sochi and the final three in the 2014 playoffs – crystallized the belief among hockey cognoscenti that Bylsma was an inferior, predictable offensive mind, seemingly oblivious to modern advances in analytics and puck possession stats.
Bylsma is still a good hire for the Sabres. If Babcock was more than Terry Pegula deserved, Bylsma is a very nice consolation prize. In some ways, he’s perfect for the job. He’s a big name in USA Hockey, and Pegula is making Buffalo a prime destination for youth hockey in America.
The Sabres are loaded with young talent. Bylsma has coached a lot of young players in his day. That includes Jack Eichel, an elite talent who will be taken by the Sabres with the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft.
So which Bylsma are the Sabres getting: The guy who won more than 60 percent of his games in Pittsburgh, a strong communicator and molder of young men; or the coach who played dump-and-chase with a superstar and apparently lost his locker room in the process?
All coaches wear out their welcome at some point. Bylsma didn’t get stupid all of a sudden. In fact, during his time off last season, he spent hours scouting NHL games on video. He also helped coach his son’s youth team.
Bylsma still believes in the dump-and-chase philosophy of offense, though he sees the virtue of having your players skate the puck into the zone. He seems flexible and young enough to adjust to changes in hockey.
He was good enough to win a Cup and coach an Olympic team. He’s certainly good enough to lift the Sabres from their years of dysfunction. They’re lucky to have him.