One of the most heavily criticized NHL head coaches has also won a Stanley Cup within the last half-decade. The charges levelled at him have frequently centered around his stubbornness, or inability, to make adjustments in a playoff series even as his team shows no signs of hope. That particular coach is currently preparing his team for a Stanley Cup Final against Chicago. His name is Claude Julien.
Julien's Boston Bruins are four wins from their second Stanley Cup in three years after dismantling, decimating, and bewildering the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins in a 4-game sweep of the Eastern Conference Finals. The coach on the other side of that series, Dan Bylsma, also has a Cup win in recent years. But that should not be enough to save his job. Not again...
Every year since the Penguins' 2009 triumph, in which Bylsma took over the team from Michel Therrien mid-season, has ended in embarrassing and shocking playoff defeats. In 2010 it was a second-round, game 7 loss to Montreal, which closed Pittsburgh's Civic Arena forever in game fans would like to forget. Then followed two first-round exits to Tampa in 7 games, and then to their arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers in 6. The loss to Philadelphia was a shock, but not more than what happened vs. Boston. This year, the top-seeded Penguins, loaded with a roster reminiscent of an All-Star Team, managed to score only 2 goals in 4 games while being swept out of the Conference Finals.
These last two playoff defeats, to Philadelphia and Boston, were of the surprising and bewildering variety. Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the upper-level goaltenders in the league seemed to forget how to play the position once the regular season ended and had to be replaced this spring by veteran backup Tomas Vokoun. The defense forgot how to play defense, only adding to Fleury's misery. (Vokoun, in fairness, played spectacularly.) But at least against Philadelphia in 2012, the Penguins scored plenty of goals. This year, against Boston, not so much. They couldn't even manage a single goal on the power play despite having 15 chances to do so.
Some seem to think the finger could be pointed at the players on the ice. Kris Letang has almost had as much trouble defensively as Fleury the last two playoffs. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, and Brendan Morrow collectively recorded zero points against Boston. Perhaps if they tried harder the Penguins could have won? But to blame this group of players for coming up empty would be to excuse the person responsible for putting those players in a position to succeed: their coach.
When Jarome Iginla was acquired in a late-March blockbuster trade from Calgary, it appeared that the Penguins' strong championship hopes were about to be realized. But, from day one, the stubborn hand of Coach Bylsma never allowed the potential of that trade to fully come to fruition. It was widely assumed that Iginla was brought in to play the right wing beside Sidney Crosby; as they had done for Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics. Bylsma didn't see fit to allow him to do so, even as they both, separately, struggled vs. Boston. Nor would Bylsma allow Iginla to play the right wing of second-line center Evgeni Malkin. No, the future Hall-of-Famer who had scored over 500 NHL goals at RIGHT WING would be forced to play the left side instead. Coach knows best, unless he doesn't. Again.
General Manager Ray Shero, who assembled this Penguins team, is likely to be awarded "GM of the Year" honors later this week. There is no chance he will be replaced, as he is the best in the business. But a non-player clearly needs to go, and it is Shero's job to decide who that is. Even if the Penguins' lineup has imperfections - and it does - the coach's job is to put the players given to him a chance to succeed. The handling of Iginla is but one example of how the coach has failed to give his team that chance. If Dan Bylsma cannot get, or allow, a team of All-Stars to perform when it counts most, then it is time for him to go. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a bargain-basement franchise with a mediocre roster and lowered expectations. They need a coach who is able to motivate the superstars and willing to make adjustments that will allow them to succeed. It's not whether Bylsma can coach, it's whether or not he can coach THIS team to a Stanley Cup. The answer is clearly: NO!