Preparation is a pillar of Dan Bylsma’s coaching philosophy. Buffalo’s coach uses any tool available to ensure he knows what’s going on with the Sabres and their opponents.
One thing he reads is the game notes, which lay out everything from stats to streaks to approaching milestones. It was the last category where Bylsma learned a little something about himself.
When Bylsma steps on the bench Thursday night in KeyBank Center, he’ll be coaching his 500th NHL game.
“I saw the milestone in the game notes but didn’t know it was coming until I read it,” Bylsma said Wednesday.
He will become the 66th coach in NHL history to hit 500, but he can be excused for not making it a priority. With the injury-riddled Sabres winless in their last five games, Bylsma cares only about beating Tampa Bay.
“We have to be a determined group right now,” Bylsma said. “We have to be a focused group in how we need to play to get victories right now, and that’s where my focus is at.”
It’s no surprise to hear Bylsma mention determination and focus. Those are two of the traits the Sabres have noticed most since he took over last season. He’s also passionate, conversational, enthusiastic and level-headed.
“He’s a very detailed coach,” alternate captain Josh Gorges said. “When you come in to play, especially right before the game, you know what your job is. You know your responsibilities. You know what your systems are. There’s absolutely no way you can come out after the game and say, ‘I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.’
“We’re prepared. For a player like myself, I love that.”
Despite Buffalo’s 0-3-2 slide, Bylsma will enter Thursday’s game as one of the most successful coaches in history. His points percentage of .632 ranks seventh among coaches with at least 150 games, putting him just behind Hall of Famer Toe Blake (.634). Among active coaches, Bylsma is second to Minnesota’s Bruce Boudreau (.657).
Bylsma’s record is 292-160-47, including 40-43-15 in Buffalo. He was 152-117-32 with Pittsburgh from 2009 to 2014.
His start with Pittsburgh helped form his game-day intensity. He was named interim coach with 25 games to go in 2008-09. The Penguins didn’t remove the label until after he closed with an 18-3-4 record and won a first-round series en route to the Stanley Cup.
“When I got my first opportunity, it was one game at a time – and it was literally one game at a time,” Bylsma said. “That’s kind of been my approach throughout my time.”
Despite feeling the need to win every game, Bylsma has a keen ability not to dwell on losses. They affect him, but he tries to make sure they don’t affect the team.
Sabres captain Brian Gionta also noticed that in Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello when they were in New Jersey.
“When you’re winning, it’s almost like you don’t want to let things slip,” Gionta said. “When you’re losing, it’s like, ‘OK we’ve got to find a way to regroup as a group.’
“It’s not just coming in and screaming at guys and things like that. It’s rallying around. Right now we’re in a grind, and we’re trying to find our way out of this. It’s making sure the group is all on board, and he’s the leader of that group.”
Most coaches have an open-door policy, but many players aren’t fond of coming through the door, especially during tough times. Bylsma makes a point of inviting players into his office or visiting with them at their locker stalls.
“He wants to keep a constant pulse,” Gionta said. “He wants to keep that communication so you know where you stand, what your role is and things like that.”
Bylsma is a contrast to recent Sabres coaches. He’s more hands-on than Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan, stopping practice whenever instruction is needed. He’s not as demonstrative as Lindy Ruff, whose facial expressions and acerbic wit left no doubt how he was feeling about players or situations.
But like Ruff, hockey and winning are what drive Bylsma.
“You can tell he just has a real passion for the game,” Gorges said. “He just loves hockey, and he brings that enthusiasm about playing and competing and being at this level and doing what we do.
"Ultimately, he is the leader of our group on a day-to-day basis. When he has that kind of passion, it’s infectious and it wears off on guys. Guys follow it, so he’s a great coach to play for.”