From one American to another: Dan Bylsma, the fired Pittsburgh Penguins coach, may be the bench boss to make Vancouver Canucks fans forget about the short-and-ugly era of John Tortorella.
The Canucks, led by team president Trevor Linden, have been in no hurry to fill the vacancy behind their bench since the firing of Tortorella on May 1.
Linden first wanted to hire a general manager, and he did, signing on Jim Benning from the Boston Bruins, and otherwise had to wait patiently on the coaching front. Bylsma’s time in Pittsburgh was finished but not officially over until Friday, and the other top candidates – Los Angeles assistant John Stevens and Willie Desjardins of the minor-league Texas Stars – remain busy with playoff hockey.
The mantra of the Canucks, in the words of Benning, is “a team we can turn around in a hurry,” a goal that comes from owner Francesco Aquilini, who is not interested in missing the playoffs again after the terrible 2013-14 campaign during which pretty much everything went wrong.
Given the hurry, Bylsma has to be the man, if the 43-year-old American from Michigan is indeed interested in a move westwards to a fishbowl Canadian hockey market for his second NHL gig. Bylsma’s reputation as a boy wonder is gone but criticism of the coach seems to be somewhat extreme.
It is true his work at the Winter Olympics was imperfect and he couldn’t get the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins back to the Stanley Cup after hoisting the trophy in his first, short season as coach in 2009 – but compared against Stevens or Desjardins, Bylsma has the combination of experience and name-brand recognition that will play well in Vancouver, outside and inside Rogers Arena.
While Bylsma was still nominally employed in Pittsburgh in recent weeks, a fair amount of attention was cast on Desjardins, a 57-year-old who has never run an NHL team but has had success in junior hockey and most recently in the American Hockey League, where his Texas Stars are in the Calder Cup finals. He also was an assistant for the Dallas Stars under Glen Gulutzan, who held on to his job as an assistant in Vancouver as Tortorella was ousted.
Then there is Stevens, the 48-year-old assistant in L.A. who won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and is there again. A year ago, the one-time Philadelphia Flyers boss (three-and-a-half seasons, ending in late 2009, and including an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2008) was the leading candidate to take over in Vancouver from the fired Alain Vigneault until Aquilini and then-GM Mike Gillis took a surprise liking to the volatile Tortorella, a gamble that exploded in spectacular fashion.
Linden has a habit of telegraphing his plans and he has said he doesn’t necessarily want a head coach with NHL experience but one with success at various levels of hockey, which is part of the reason for the talk around Desjardins. But for all of Desjardins’ work with young players, the Canucks need a boss who can understand veteran NHLers. Stevens fits this bill, but his grounding in defence is less appealing for a club that scored the fewest goals in franchise history last season.
What players are looking for is a coach with strategic savvy. The Canucks were lacking this past season, with an awful power play as a glaring example. Pittsburgh had the No. 1 power play in the NHL this season – though, granted, that was achieved with some of the game’s best players.
“You want a coach that gets your team prepared for games,” said Daniel Sedin earlier this week. “There’s no hesitation going on the ice what players are going to do.”
Last is the question of Ryan Kesler. The soon-to-be 30-year-old centre tried to wrench himself from the wreckage of the Canucks at the trade deadline in March, and Pittsburgh was one of the prime destinations. The Canucks, again starting with Aquilini, want Kesler to stay. Kesler wants to win. He met with Benning this week in Vancouver and the hiring of Bylsma, for whom Kesler played at the Olympics, might go at least some way to sating his desires.
Still, odds are Kesler moves elsewhere and the Canucks, if successful in a deal, get players in return to help with the promised turn-around-in-a-hurry. Bringing Bylsma into the equation starts making the promise a little less fanciful.