The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t change a whole lot after being swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. Coach Dan Bylsma, centre Evgeni Malkin and defencemen Kris Letang got contract extensions, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury got a vote of confidence.
But on Friday the team announced the addition of seasoned coach Jacques Martin as an assistant, a move that could be a minor tweak for a Stanley Cup contender or a major change for Bylsma and his staff.
General manager Ray Shero indicated that Bylsma initiated talks with Martin with the idea of adding experience. Bylsma said it wasn’t just a response to the Penguins’ surprising playoff exit.
“I think we’ve always looked at situations where we need to be able to get better at and improve upon. We certainly did that after this year,” Bylsma said on a conference call with reporters. “We want someone with maybe a little bit different look at things from a different perspective.”
The 60-year-old Martin brings a unique perspective, having won 613 of 1,294 games in parts of 17 seasons as an NHL head coach. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year with the Ottawa Senators in 1999 and is 10th all-time in victories.
Martin most recently spent three seasons coaching the Montreal Canadiens before being fired and replaced by Randy Cunneyworth midway through the 2011-’12 season. He hasn’t been an assistant since 1995-’96 with the Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche, but Martin isn’t worried about stepping back into that role.
“I think I’ve always looked at coaching, whether I’m the head coach or an assistant coach as teamwork, working together,” Martin said. “Yes we have different responsibilities, but I’ve always felt that I wanted my assistant coaches to be strong-minded, strong people that express themselves.”
The Penguins weren’t sure if Martin would join Bylsma and assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden behind the bench for games as their specific roles are expected to become more defined after training camp. Martin is hoping to learn from those younger coaches and also plans to lean on past experience in Ottawa with late mentor Roger Neilson.
“Roger happened to be one of my assistant coaches at the end of his career, and he was tremendous,” Martin said. “I think I can relate to what Roger brought to my coaching style and to our team in Ottawa when he worked as an assistant. I can bring some of those same contributions, same knowledge and commitment to Dan and to the rest of our staff and the Penguins organization.”
Martin had a previous connection to Shero from some time together with the Senators, but it was Bylsma who apparently sought him out as an assistant-coaching candidate. Bylsma said the plan to hire another assistant had been discussed in previous years, but everything came together to add Martin after a couple of months of conversations.
“We weren’t just looking for a coach, we were looking for a criteria of a coach and an experience of a coach,” Bylsma said. “The expertise that comes with Jacques, his experience in the game at many different levels is really what we want to add to our team.”
Martin has never won a Cup as a head coach but has a ring from the Avalanche. In going to Pittsburgh, Martin expressed excitement about joining a team that sees winning it all as a “mandate.”
The Penguins hope hiring Martin helps them return to the top of the NHL for the first time since 2009.
“We’re a salary cap league now for eight years or so,” Shero said. “There’s other areas in which you try to improve your team off the ice. This is just another avenue trying to do that, to add to our coaching staff, to make us a better team, and that’s simply what we’re trying to do.”
One way for Martin to make an impact could be by helping Letang round out his defensive game. Reirden has been in charge of the blue-line and might continue in that role, but Martin brings with him the experience of overseeing the growth of young defencemen like Chris Phillips and Wade Redden in Ottawa.
Bylsma said Letang, who this summer signed a $58-million, eight-year extension, has “improved dramatically.” But of course there’s room for some work.
“From the outside, from coaching against him, there’s no doubt that he has tremendous vision, has tremendous offensive skill,” Martin said. “I think like many other young defencemen I think it’s moving without the puck, it’s improving, playing maybe more of a controlled game. ...
“I’m looking forward to that opportunity as well as the other great players on this team.”