For the first four years of his career, Sidney Crosby’s faceoff skills ranged from abysmal to mediocre. Not many people cared. He was already an MVP and a Stanley Cup champion.
One person cared, however. Crosby. He didn’t want flaws in his game, so he worked hard on his draws heading into the 2009-10 season. He became one of the NHL’s best, winning 55.9 percent of his faceoffs.
His coach, Dan Bylsma, took note. Now that Bylsma is the coach in Buffalo, he’ll pass on those notes to the Sabres’ talented prospects.
“I know that those players aren’t great because they have talent,” Bylsma said of Crosby and Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin. “They’re great because they work. They’re great because of the details they have in their game. They’re great because of how they approach the game and prepare for the game. That’s something I know and can relate to very good players.
“When you’re talking about a guy working to make the National Hockey League and survive, they know they have to work hard. But for Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid, the work ethic and the details that are part of the game for star players are high, and if they want to be a star in this league, that’s where they have to be at.”
The Sabres hope they have the NHL’s next great center duo in Sam Reinhart and Eichel, who will be drafted second overall next month. The team wants them to resemble Crosby and Malkin. Buffalo has the coach who has seen firsthand what makes Pittsburgh’s players special.
“I probably learned as much from working with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as they did from me,” Bylsma said. “I think it’s going to be applicable to the likes of Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel.”
The coach got a head start with Eichel at the world championships. Bylsma was an assistant under Todd Richards for the bronze medal-winning Americans, and he worked with Eichel during games and film sessions.
“That was a large majority of NHL players that Jack was competing against,” Bylsma said. “It wasn’t for five minutes a game. It wasn’t for seven minutes a game. He was one of our better players for Team USA, so Todd Richards was putting him on the ice against Evgeni Malkin, he was putting him against good NHL players, and skill-wise, size-wise, ability-wise, he stacks up.
“He skated right by NHL players to get pucks, and we’d kind of look at each other on the bench and say, ‘That’s an NHL player he just skated by.’
“Does Jack have a lot to improve on and get better at while playing against bigger men in a bigger game? He does. But he’s a very good player. Where’s he going to stack up in terms of great or good in this league? That remains to be seen, but he’s got some very good talent.”
To achieve his maximum potential, Eichel will also need guidance off the ice. The 18-year-old will face immediate expectations. The game and spotlight will get to be a grind.
Once again, Bylsma can help thanks to his experience with the Penguins.
“The spotlight and the scope that’s going to be on the first and second pick overall in this draft is not something you can avoid,” he said. “You can’t get away from it. That’s the nature of the business. There’s been a lot of expectations on Connor McDavid. There’s been a lot of expectations on Jack Eichel. People have thrown around ‘generational’ and different terminology to depict what those guys might be.
“I see that and live that every day with the players we had in Pittsburgh. Great players, high expectations, huge scope, and I think in some aspects I understand that and can help players deal with that.”
Before anyone gets the idea Bylsma can deal only with stars, he’ll remind them of his own career. He played for 11 teams in 12 seasons, bouncing from the minors to the NHL.
“There’s not a lot in the game that I haven’t experienced as a player in terms of setbacks, getting sent down, not getting a contract, playing in the minors, playing in the East Coast League, playing for different teams,” he said. “I played with excellent players. I played with star players. I played on bad teams. I played on winning teams. So I have vast experience and I was planning to be a coach long before I was done playing. I think that’s all part of me as a coach and how I coach.”
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The Penguins had no plans to seek a compensatory third-round pick from any team that hired Bylsma. That’s because they didn’t think they could.
“The rule is not as clear as it should be,” Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford told Trib Total Media. “We felt that the intent of the rule was for employees that were still with the team, that were working with the team, not terminated employees.”
Once they found out any executive or coach still under contract warranted a draft pick, they took a 2016 third-rounder from the Sabres. The rule, put in place last year, will undoubtedly be discussed during the board of governors meeting next month.
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The Sabres hope to have Bylsma’s assistant coaches in place by the end of June. General Manager Tim Murray said Arturs Irbe will interview for the position of goaltending coach. Irbe, who held the same job under fired bench boss Ted Nolan, is still under contract with the Sabres.
Bylsma’s right-hand man has been Tony Granato, the longtime NHL forward who also was part of Bylsma’s Olympic staff. Granato was an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit this season. Other Bylsma assistants have included Todd Reirden, a former college teammate, and Jacques Martin.
“He’s going to have the final say for the most part,” said Murray, who wasn’t fond of the inexperience on Nolan’s bench. “I may have a couple ideas of guys he won’t have to hire but that he can talk to. ... Certainly, he will not be hiring an assistant coach that he does not want.”