Starkey: Bylsma would be lucky to stay |
Breakfast With Benz

Starkey: Bylsma would be lucky to stay

Dan Bylsma better hope his bosses have more patience with him than he and they had with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Bylsma and Fleury were heroes in the Penguins’ magical Stanley Cup run of 2009. Neither has done much right in four postseasons since.

Fleury was given three springs and part of a fourth before deservedly losing his job. Why should Bylsma get five? To see if a fifth straight playoff exit can somehow top the previous four in terms of pure humiliation?

It’s one thing to lose. It’s quite another to disintegrate in increasingly disturbing fashion.

The favored Penguins melted down in Game 7 against Montreal, lost by six goals at home with a chance to close out Tampa Bay, gave up 30 goals in six games against the arch-rival Flyers and scored two goals — two! — in four games against the Bruins.

This star-studded club has gone four straight years without so much as sniffing the Stanley Cup.

Such endings normally precipitate significant change. Like putting your franchise goalie on alert by signing a $2 million “backup.” That was last year’s move.

What now?

If I’m general manager Ray Shero and co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, I begin my examination at the top, the only logical starting place.

That means turning the spotlight onto Bylsma and $104.4 million captain Sidney Crosby.

Crosby is a column for another day. It’s not like he’s going anywhere. Just know that in his past three season-ending games — Game 7 against Montreal, Game 6 against Philly and Game 4 against Boston — his cumulative line reads like something out of Dennis Bonvie’s bio: zero goals, zero assists, minus-5 rating.

So that leaves Bylsma, who has entered three of the past four postseasons fortified with an almost unfair array of talent and has done next to nothing with it.

His players routinely become unglued at critical moments. His special teams — both units or just one — fail spectacularly at some point each spring, never more so than in the adjustment-less power play’s 0-for-15 showing against Boston.

Bylsma is not tough enough on his stars, who too often play an undisciplined brand of hockey that filters through the lineup. His sternest messages are saved for the likes of Tyler Kennedy and Simon Despres, the latter of whom is a top-four talent who should have been groomed for playoff action.

Instead, Despres was jerked in and out of the lineup all season and was unprepared for high-stakes competition.

Young players are buried in Bylsma’s system, a system that features too much risk. The ultimate Bylsma puck retrieval, for example, calls for multiple touch passes before a direct delivery to the center speeding up the middle. Gorgeous when it works. An opponent’s scoring chance when it doesn’t.

Still, Bylsma obviously is a good coach. He’d be hired within minutes if fired here. The real question is whether he’s the right coach for this franchise.

Nobody can take away the fabulous job he did in 2009, but it’s instructive to remember that Bylsma had not yet fully implemented his ideas. Rather, he expertly tweaked Michel Therrien’s system.

This is how then-assistant GM Chuck Fletcher described it: “Michel Therrien did a terrific job bringing accountability, a sense of defensive responsibility and structure. … Dan was able to come in and open up the spigot a bit, if you will.”

In subsequent years, that spigot often unleashed a glorious waterfall of goals. Slowly, though, the defensive foundation rotted away. Bylsma tried to restore it this season. He vowed to learn from last year’s shellacking, and his team delivered spurts of excellent defense.

But the Penguins fell in love with their reflection again in the romp over Ottawa — and then ran into a club maniacally dedicated to preventing goals.

What this team needs is a simpler structure that players can trust in the crucible of playoff hockey. The guess here is that Bylsma will be retained and perhaps asked to alter his system or staff. My move would be to go after Dave Tippett, whose contract with the beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes expires June 30.

Tippett could do what Bylsma did, only in reverse: Take a gifted, offensive-minded team and restore its defensive foundation. Turn down the spigot, if you will.

When pressed on his job status before Game 4, Bylsma reminded everyone, “I coached this hockey team in 2009.”

True enough, but that was a long time ago.

Just ask Fleury.

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