Wanting to leave little doubt as to the future of his coaching staff, Penguins general manager Ray Shero announced today he has signed head coach Dan Byslma as well as assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden to two-year contract extensions.
With a year left on his current deal, Bylsma is signed through 2015-16.
Additionally, Shero announced goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, 62, is stepping down from his current position and will become a special assignment scout.
The announcement came during Shero's season ending press conference at Consol Energy Center. Among the highlights:
-On the extensions, Shero said, "It's important to me and making a statement that I believe in Dan Bylsma. I believe in our coaching staff."
-Shero expressed a belief in Byslma: "If I didn't, I would make a change whether it was a coach or players."
-According to Shero, co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux were "100 percent" in favor of extending Bylsma and his staff. Shero even said Burkle and Lemieux gave endorsements before he could make his case to keep Bylsma.
-When asked about the status of struggling goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Shero said, "I'm not getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury. I've had that conversation with him, provided Marc wants to be a part of it here and come back. He's a young goalie, 28-years old. You alluded to the playoffs and it's been tough. It's been really tough. I've had that conversation with him. Some of the things I really expect him to this summer, which I believe for the first time, he's really ready to embrace and try to do to improve. That's part of becoming a good goaltender and maintaining. And with Marc, I think we all see, it's about focus, concentration some time. It's difficult to replace 40 wins a year from Marc-Andre Fleury. I can't replace that. I don't believe I can go out and get someone like that. We talk about the playoffs that is certainly an area he needs improvement on in concentration and belief to get back to where he was in  and . I believe he can do that. There's certain steps he's got to do to get back there. ... The faith I have in Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't waned. Nor has it from Dan [Byslma]. I think there's a misconception a little bit that losing faith in Marc-Andre was not putting him in the playoffs. It's about the team and Marc was, in my conversation with him, he was fine with that because hew knew Tomas [Vokoun] was playing really well and he supported that."
-Regarding defenseman Simon Despres and forward Beau Bennett: "These guys are going to get tremendous opportunities next year. That's what I've told them. That's what [Byslma] has told them. But it is up to them to take advantage of that."
On calls from media and fans to make changes at the coaching position: "I know where there’s great disappointment, there’s call for change. That’s okay. That’s the way sports are. We see it all the time. No disrespect to fans or [message] boards or what people write or say on the radio, I can’t listen to it. Not that I don’t like listening to you guys or reading you guys, it’s just I’ve got to make the decision based upon on the knowledge I have."
-On Jarome Iginla's extensive use as a left wing: "When I talked to him when we completed the deal, I called him and told him what the role could be here, it didn't matter. He just wanted to help out. We did have a hole here, a hole there. The opportunity to get Jarome Iginla, I would do it again. Public sentiment, I can’t base my decision on that. If I do, then I don’t think I’m doing myself a service or our owners a service or our fans a service."
EN Says: This decision is about two things primarily.
Stars and style.
The Penguins' star players enjoy playing for Bylsma. He has put in place an aggressive, hard-skating style which allows them to rack up points, play "fun" hockey and more often than not, win. Additionally, he's a "player's coach." Bylsma, who played in the NHL as recently as 2003-04, has a strong relationship with most of his players, treats them with a demanding but gentle approach and defends most of them publicly to no end.
With the Penguins hoping to potentially re-signing stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to contract extensions this summer, removing any doubt over the team's management was vital. Additionally, having a coach who has them playing a style they enjoy makes it easier to sign both to long-term contracts.
Another think to keep in mind is the fact that Sidney Crosby begins a 12-year contract this summer. The team much maintain an environment which satisfies him as well. Keeping in Byslma in place accomplishes that.
The idea of making decisions about coaches for the sake of a player's preference might seem preposterous but that's simply a way of life in most team sports. The Rangers fired John Tortorella largely due to the pending free agency of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist grew tired of Tortorella's approach on and off the ice. In hopes of signing Lundqvist to a long-term extension this offseason, the Rangers cut Tortorella loose.
As far as style goes, as was the case with Mario Lemieux the player, Mario Lemieux the owner wants his team to play in a fashion which emphasizes offense. The Penguins do that in a big way under Bylsma. You can accuse this team of being many things under Bylsma. You can't accuse them of being boring. This team enjoys scoring goals in bunches, even if that means giving up more than a few. Lemieux likes offense and that's what Bylsma offers.
There's no question this team underachieved this past season. The fact they were nearly shutout completely in the Eastern Conference final against the Bruins was inexcusable, especially considering the roster which was assembled after the trade deadline. That must fall at Bylsma's feet.
Removing Bylsma on the grounds of that failure would have been justified. But who do you bring in? Is there's an overwhelming candidate who could step in, immediately claim the respect of a dressing room of veteran superstars and push this squad to the next step while implementing a style which would keep management happy?
There are quite a few retreads available such as Lindy Ruff, John Stevens and Marc Crawford who have coached high-end talent with some success in the past but can you honestly say they're better options than Bylsma?
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett is expected to be available this offseason. Tippett is one of the best coaches in the NHL and has improved the cash-strapped Coyotes in multiple ways but he simply wouldn't be a fit here for the style ownership desires. Tippett is a safe, defensive coach who rarely takes chances offensively. He simply would not fit in here.
Another thing to consider here is the fact that the Penguins can always remove Bylsma and his staff anytime they wish. If you recall, his predecessor Michel Therrien was fired one year into a three-year contract. If for any reason the Penguins feel the need to make a change with Bylsma or any of his staff, it's not that difficult to do.
Ultimately, Shero and Penguins management chose continuity over change for the sake of change. Regardless of his shortcomings, Bylsma remains one of the top coaches in the NHL and he just received a resounding endorsement.
Regarding Meloche and the goaltending coach position, this will be a very important hire. The team needs someone to rebuild Marc-Andre Fleury's game. The talent is still there but the results aren't. Fleury's issues appear to be very correctable. As Shero said today, concentration and focus appear to an issue for Fleury, especially during the playoffs. A goaltending coach is part technician and part psychologist for the position. At 28, Fleury should be past the point in his career for needing a hands-on coach. But Martin Brodeur, the winningest goaltender in NHL history has a coach he still works with. A fresh approach to this role could save Fleury's career.
(Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)