Is Dan the man?

Dan Bylsma

General Manager Tim Murray thinks that Dan Bylsma is the right man to coach the Sabres into the playoffs.

“He’s been through it. He’s a winner. He knows what it takes to get there, and how to perform when he gets there,” said Murray.

This will be the season that will either confirm his belief in Byslma or indicate a change is in order.

Going from rock bottom to respectability isn’t considered a mean feat when taking into account Buffalo still finished 23rd despite a 12-win and 27-point improvement. It’s not as if the Sabres could have been much worse after finishing last in each of the previous two seasons.

Murray has done his part. Better than 60% of the players going into last season’s training camp were not on the squad during the year of the tank. The same is true for this year; 60% of the players coming to camp were not on last year’s list. Whether fans agree with all the moves or not, Murray has certainly changed the personnel.

Now it’s up to Bylsma. He brought his defensive style to Buffalo and the results are showing: The Sabres allowed a whopping 52 fewer goals than the previous year. It’s Bylsma’s ongoing task to change the losing culture to that of winning.

“It’s a big concern and really part of our growth and development is getting the culture of winning and what we need to do and what we have to do to win,” said the coach at the beginning of training camp.

There are questions about Dan Bylsma’s ability to lead the Sabres, though. Prior to his year off before joining the Blue and Gold, his head coaching record came exclusively from his tenure in Pittsburgh. There, he won a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams Award. That experience seems terrific at first glance, but a more scrutinized examination reveals concerns that Bylsma will have to overcome in Buffalo.

When he was hired to take over from Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh, the team had had back-to-back seasons of 105 and 102 points in the regular season, they had Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin rocketing into the prime of their young careers and had just played the Detroit Red Wings for the Cup.

Therrien got the boot as the Penguins stumbled out of the blocks in 2008-09 season mainly due to losing almost 200 man-games to injury by the end of January. As Bylsma took over, moves were made to add Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. The team got healthy and surged toward a Cup victory.

At that point, the hockey world was buzzing about the All-Star Penguins’ roster that featured Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Guerin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sergei Gonchar, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang. Discussions didn’t center around whether Pittsburgh would win another Cup but how many. Pundits and fans alike began using the term ‘dynasty’.

The 2009-2010 regular season featured almost the exact team stats as the 2008-2009 season. The Pens went on to lose to Montreal in the second round of the playoffs.

The following campaign was another injury-riddled season for the Penguins. They qualified fourth for the playoffs despite missing both Crosby and Malkin for a stretch of 12 games. Though they scored 19 fewer goals, they allowed 38 fewer than the previous year. Surviving the injuries to hold onto the playoffs by implementing a more defensive style earned Coach Bylsma the Jack Adams trophy. Tampa then dispatched Pittsburgh in the first round.

Bylsma spent three more seasons with the Penguins. While his teams continued to play well during the regular season, as they had done for his first three years, and the two years before his appointment up from Wilkes-Barre, there was only modest playoff success. Where were the Cups that had been anticipated for years? This was the question that led to Bylsma’s termination.

Time will tell if Coach Dan can be The Man in the Nickel City. Is he the man who failed to marshal a star-studded regular season juggernaut through the playoffs in Pittsburgh? Or is he the Jack Adams-winning coach who leads the Sabres to success? Answers to these questions begin with the season opener this week.