- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

Six years ago he was a middling player in the NHL, a grinder whose team came agonizingly close to the Stanley Cup. Twelve months ago it seemed his coaching career was still in its infancy as an assistant coach in the American Hockey League.

Yes, Dan Bylsma is not quite two months older than one of his players. But the trajectory of his career has rocketed upward in the past year, and he is now two days away from coaching a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals.

“My family has come to see me, and it’s like, ‘Can you believe what’s happening? Can you believe?’ And I’m like, ‘Not really. I can’t believe it,’ ” Bylsma said. “I’m not a person who likes to deny my thoughts or what I’m going through or ignore everything around me. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Bylsma was promoted to coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last summer, but his time as an AHL bench boss was improbably short. The parent club was the defending Eastern Conference champion, and Michel Therrien was months removed from being one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s top coach.

Still, the Pittsburgh Penguins floundered in the middle of the regular season and fell to 10th place in the conference. After one particularly embarrassing blowout defeat to Toronto in mid-February, general manager Ray Shero decided it was time for a switch.

Enter Bylsma, a 38-year-old with one season as assistant at the NHL level and less than one as a head coach in professional hockey. His aggressive philosophy was a departure from Therrien’s defensive-minded style, and the young, talented Penguins were quickly sold on the move.

“It wasn’t hard convincing them, I don’t think,” Bylsma said. “The game by nature is aggressive and in-your-face and confrontational. If you’re not playing it that way, you know it. You know when another team’s taking it to you. You know when you’re waiting or letting the play come to you.

“As players, every player in that room has had success at some point in time due to their skill level or the teams they’ve played on being aggressive and taking the play to the other team. That’s the way the game should be played and needs to be played to tip the scales in your favor.”

A team that once relied on mistakes from its opponents and its power play for offense transformed into an attacking group that generated more chances at even strength. The Penguins climbed to fourth place by regular season’s end and again navigated through the Eastern Conference in the postseason.

“I think just Coach Bylsma has brought a new sense of confidence into the room,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “At the time when they made the switch, things weren’t going so well for us.”

Added center Jordan Staal: “I think Dan brings a lot of energy every day. You know, sometimes you don’t even think he sleeps at night. When he wakes up in the morning he’s ready to go every time. It’s always nice to come to the rink and have him jumping around and excited to go out and play some hockey. So he’s always fun to be around with, and he’s fun to play for. Obviously, everyone wants to work hard for him.”

There are several similarities between Bylsma and Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Both were hired with zero NHL head coaching experience; both turned around young, talented teams by getting them to play more aggressively; and both were journeymen as players.

But Boudreau spent the better part of two decades as a coach in the minors before getting his shot in the big leagues. There may be several new coaches in the NHL this season who got their opportunity in part because of Boudreau’s success with the Caps last year, and coaches like Bylsma, Florida’s Peter DeBoer and Ottawa’s Cory Clouston are all significantly younger.

Bylsma is less than two months older than Penguins forward Bill Guerin and is the youngest coach in the league. Detroit’s Mike Babcock was Bylsma’s coach in 2003 when Anaheim faced this same situation - a Game 7 on the road for a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

New Jersey defeated Anaheim 3-0 in that contest, and Bylsma distinctly remembers a picture of himself in USA Today the next day after he had tipped a shot toward Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.

“That’s the agony and the beautiful thing of sport - that we play a game, and we play it for some great reasons: to win a Cup, to win a trophy, to be the best,” Bylsma said. “When you don’t get it, it’s painful. And when you get it, it’s glorious, and you get a lot of good pictures. You take the bad ones if you don’t win, and you put them in a basement in a box somewhere.

“We’re looking for one we can hang on the wall.”

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