- Craig Custance
Early on during Team USA’s world championship semifinal against Russia, head coach Todd Richards noticed that the Russians had found a way to effectively counter his set forecheck so that they were attacking the American defensemen with speed.
During the intermission, Richards and assistant Dan Bylsma quickly watched to see if there was a solution. Richards thought he had a good plan to fix it, but then he heard an idea from Bylsma.
He knew it was better.
“He’s able to point things out, we had to make that adjustment in the Russia game,” Richards said when we chatted Thursday following the announcement that Bylsma was the new Buffalo Sabres head coach. “His idea was better than my idea. It helped. It helped, without question.”
Bylsma immediately brings high energy and experience to the Sabres franchise, but it’s his attention to detail that is sometimes underappreciated. On Thursday, Patrick Sharp joked that he sits next to Duncan Keith on the Blackhawks team plane and all Keith wants to do is talk hockey, so Sharp is quick to put on his headphones.
Bylsma is cut from the same cloth as Keith. He’s in constant communication with his fellow coaches, talking hockey strategy and philosophy. He’s been taking detailed notes about coaching since his playing days.
“We don’t have a very good off switch,” said one fellow coach close to Bylsma. “I’m driving to go play golf and I’ve made four calls to talk to guys about all that stuff.”
It’s why the Dan Bylsma that Buffalo is getting right now is better than the one the Penguins fired. He’s had a year off to focus on what other coaches are doing. He’s watched more hockey in the past year than he has in any other year of his life.
Without the responsibilities of the day-to-day grind of coaching a team, he’s probably had more of those hockey philosophy conversations too.
“It has afforded me to look at the game from a distance,” Bylsma said during his introductory news conference. “I do think in terms of how you play the game and what’s important and evolving as a coach, I’ve done quite a bit of growing in the last year.”
Richards, more than anyone, can attest to that.
He hired Bylsma as an assistant in Wilkes-Barre. He coached against Bylsma in the playoffs when the Blue Jackets and Penguins went toe-to-toe in 2014. He was an assistant under Bylsma in the Winter Olympics, and he worked with him this year in the Czech Republic at the IIHF World Championship. He’s had a front row seat for the growth Byslma is making, the growth all coaches make when they gain more experience.
“For me, the evolution with Dan was most noticeable when he coached in the Olympics,” Richards said. “Being able to watch him that close, I only knew him as an assistant and he did a tremendous job. There’s such an energy and passion.”
That energy and passion has always been there. It arrives in Buffalo armed with the experiences in Pittsburgh, the insight that comes with widening horizons and the wisdom coaches gain as they evolve.
“He’ll make the players better and he’ll make the other people around him better,” Richards said. “He’s a perfect hire.”
A few notes from around the league:
• Another advantage for Bylsma in Buffalo is his familiarity with Jack Eichel, whom he coached with Team USA at the world championships. “It makes for a little bit easier transition,” Richards said. “Just having that familiarity with Jack going in and him knowing the new coach.” At his news conference, Byslma said Eichel projected as an elite, elite player who stacked up with anybody he played against at the worlds. What impressed Richards most was Eichel’s strength. Typically, that’s an area of weakness for teenagers entering the NHL, but it won’t be for Eichel. “He was playing against men; there were situations where he had to battle and compete in the offensive or defensive zone,” Richards said. “I was impressed with how he was able to protect the puck, shield the puck.”
• While I had Richards on the line, I asked if he had any predictions on which team might win the Game 7s coming up in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Like everyone else in the hockey world, he’s been captivated by the two incredible series. “It’s great hockey,” he said. “Each team has their great players. Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson in Tampa. Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash in New York. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for Anaheim. Great names. Great players on each side.”
So did he have any feelings on who might advance?
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I just know that anybody who wins either series is deserving of winning. Whoever wins, they’re deserving. I just wish I were a part of it. It does look like it’s a lot of fun.”
• As coaching jobs are settled and the NHL playoffs move toward a conclusion, the focus is going to shift toward roster construction and building teams for next season. For many GMs, that has already started. This is expected to be an extremely active trade market, especially at the draft when it will hit its peak, and general managers are already getting started.
“This is the time everybody is calling around, getting a feel,” said one Eastern Conference GM this week. “The four teams are still playing but everybody wants their take on things too before anybody pulls a trigger. We’re just trying to get the lay of the land. It’ll heat up when we get toward the draft.”
Now, a few questions from the Friday mailbag:
There were a lot of hurt feelings in Buffalo over Mike Babcock’s decision to go to Toronto given that it’s believed the Leafs rebuild is far behind the Sabres. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Do I believe the Sabres are ahead of the Leafs right now? Yes, for a couple of reasons: They’ve done the hard part in stripping the roster and stockpiling draft picks. Toronto still has long-term contracts that are tying up valuable salary-cap space. There’s work to be done in that regard.
Plus, the Sabres are going to get a franchise center in Jack Eichel. That’s the hardest part of any rebuilding equation. I’m still not sure how Toronto addresses that problem because you can only get them in the top three of the draft, and it’s hard to imagine any Mike Babcock team finishing in the bottom three of the league.
That said, the Sabres aren’t THAT far ahead.
“Rochester is no good,” said one source. “Their best players are not even players yet; they’re like embryos. They’re all draft picks or first-year pros.”
So it’s not as if Buffalo has a huge advantage. Factor in the prestige that comes with turning around the Maple Leafs along with the very real family considerations and it’s understandable why Babcock did what he did.
That said, the Sabres got a good one in Bylsma. They’ll be just fine.
Stan Bowman has his work cut out for him this summer. Realizing that he has only had the job since 2009, is he the best GM in hockey right now? If this core wins a Cup after this year, is he in the Hall of Fame?
Easy now, Matt. Let’s not induct anybody into the Hall after six years on the job. Stan Bowman has done a fantastic job in Chicago, although it’s only fair to credit Dale Tallon for doing the heavy lifting on the first Stanley Cup this group won together.
What's most impressive to me was Bowman’s ability to tear that team down for salary-cap reasons and rebuild it into another Stanley Cup winner. This summer will be another great test for Bowman because he has to clear salary again. It’s going to be similar to what he had to do after the 2010 Stanley Cup, but the difference is that the players he traded then were much more valuable and it wasn’t hard to find takers for guys like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and a young Kris Versteeg.
Now, he’s going to have to try to trim salary by trading a player like Bryan Bickell, whose value to the team doesn’t match the contract. It may also be time to trade Patrick Sharp, who may be the ticket to getting back into the first round. There’s also a Brandon Saad contract to negotiate. So yeah, it’s going to be a busy one.
I’m not ready to crown him the NHL’s best GM simply because there are so many good ones. Just look at this final four -- all high-end general managers in Glen Sather, Bob Murray, Stan Bowman and Steve Yzerman.
But Bowman has definitely put himself in that conversation, without a doubt.
What are the chances a guy like Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner falls out of the top 5? See any other kids that could challenge?
To me, they should be locks to get picked in the top five, but it’s the draft and anything can happen. I posed your question to a well-respected amateur scouting director, and he considered it for a moment.
“I don’t think anyone from Europe gets into the top five,” he said. “Here’s the situation: If [Noah] Hanifin is in the top five, all it takes is one other player and one of [Marner or Strome] drops out.”
Then he considered the teams that would have to consider passing on Strome or Marner for either of them to drop out of the top five, namely Arizona and Toronto. He looked at both franchises and saw a need for high-end skill at forward.
“Toronto needs skill, they need someone who can impact the game,” he said. “They’re going after skill. Arizona has Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’ve got their power-play guy; they’ve got their minutes guy. I think they go after one of the forwards.”
So that leaves the last part of your question. Is there a player who could sneak into the top five as a surprise pick?
“Maybe the guy in Sarnia -- Pavel Zacha,” he said after some thought. “He’s a 6-foot-3 centerman, I could see him being in the conversation.”