Dan Bylsma was out of work for the last year, but the Buffalo Sabres’ new coach certainly wasn’t out of hockey. He would sit in front of the television for hours and analyze the sport.
“I’m quite confident my wife thinks I watched too many hockey games last season,” he said Thursday.
The 44-year-old enjoyed the experience, even if Mary Beth Bylsma didn’t. The sabbatical allowed him to see why certain teams had success, what didn’t work for others and how different coaches put together game plans. He’s confident the time away from the bench will make him a better coach than he was in his previous job – and he was a Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve done quite a bit of growing the last year looking at the game, so I plan to bring that to the coach I’ll be with the Sabres,” Bylsma said in First Niagara Center. “There is, I think, a bright future ahead for this team.”
The Sabres insist they are better already because of Bylsma. They conducted on-and-off chats with him for a month before finalizing a reported five-year, $15 million contract.
“We improved today by hiring him,” General Manager Tim Murray said. “His record as an NHL coach speaks for itself.”
Bylsma arrived in Buffalo as the most accomplished coach since Scotty Bowman brought his five Cups to town in 1979. Bylsma went 252-117-32 during six seasons with the Penguins, accumulating a points percentage (.668) that is the best in NHL history among coaches with at least three years of experience.
It takes outstanding players for a team to be that good, and Bylsma had them with the Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in the argument for best player in the world, and Pittsburgh’s lineup had other All-Stars while Bylsma was on the bench.
The Sabres believe their young prospects will be just as good. Having someone who knows how to coach and handle elite talent is a plus for the organization.
“I’ve coached star players in Pittsburgh, and that’s going to be the case with the young talent that’s coming to the Buffalo Sabres,” said Bylsma, who repeatedly said it’s just as important to develop a winning environment. “It wasn’t something you had just because you had certain players on your roster. That’s something that we have to immediately get into the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, get into our DNA, get into who we are and how we play, and develop that culture with this group.”
The Sabres were all about losing during the previous two seasons. They were also a fractured organization, with Murray and ex-coach Ted Nolan failing to build any type of relationship. Murray clearly admires Bylsma and is ready for the team to come together under the “One Buffalo” umbrella.
“We need somebody who knows how to teach, knows how to communicate,” Murray said. “It’s not just telling somebody what they have to do, it’s why they have to do that. There aren’t a lot of coaches that can do that. I think Dan is one of them.
“We can talk about X’s and O’s and all that later, but it’s communication, it’s teaching, it’s understanding young people, understanding what they’re going through. I think he’s very good at those aspects of the game.”
Bylsma has already shown his touch with youngsters while dealing with Jack Eichel. The college star, who will be selected second overall by the Sabres at next month’s NHL Draft, played for the United States this spring at the world championships. Bylsma was an assistant coach and conducted individual film sessions with the 18-year-old.
“You have a chance to see a guy who’s going to be an elite, elite player,” Bylsma said. “He’s playing against NHL players, and he stacked right up there with his skill and his size and his ability to play the game.”
The Penguins’ failure to earn a second Cup led to Bylsma’s dismissal last spring. He hoisted the trophy after being hired as a midseason replacement in 2009 but couldn’t reach the finals again.
“Sometimes that presents you with a downhill battle from the beginning,” said Bylsma, who won division titles in his final two seasons. “The expectation was to win every hockey game. That might not be realistic here. ... I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”
Because Bylsma was still under contract with the Penguins for one more year, they were entitled to compensation for letting the Sabres hire him. They will receive a third-round pick in 2016 that originally belonged to Vancouver or the New York Islanders.
“A couple teams have waived that for certain guys this year,” Murray said. “Pittsburgh did not waive that for us.”
Giving up a draft pick to get Bylsma was fine by Murray. He says the coach gives the Sabres something no prospect can – a winning pedigree.
“He’s won a Cup, so he’s had an experience that I haven’t had,” Murray said. “He could teach me about that experience. He could teach the rest of the organization – our equipment staff, our medical staff, our training staff, the players – so that we walk around here and think like winners, eventually act like winners and become winners.”