Dan Bylsma not fired – are the Penguins hoping to land Mike Babcock next year?

Rory Boylen
Mike Babcock

If the Pittsburgh Penguins had beaten the New York Rangers in Game 5, 6, or 7, Ray Shero would still be employed today. Had they reached the conference final, or Stanley Cup final, perhaps he’d still be employed by Pittsburgh this summer, too. But they didn’t win. And that’s how tough it is to get, and keep, a management job at the NHL level with a contending team.

But the most shocking news that came out of Friday’s Penguins press conference wasn’t that they let go of a GM who built a Stanley Cup champion, a two-time finalist and a team that had the second-best record over his eight years at the helm (San Jose is the only team with more points since 2006). No – the real head-scratcher is that Dan Bylsma is still the Penguins’ coach.

First of all, firing Shero wasn’t the wrong call, as Ken Campbell points out. The Penguins had fallen far too short each year since winning the Cup in 2009 (even when they advanced to the conference final and were swept last year) and were having the same depth, defense and goaltending issues each time. Scouting, drafting and acquisitions were to blame – and that falls on the GM.

But that Shero’s was the first head to roll, even before the coach, is amazing. Because as similar as the holes in this lineup had become year after year, just as similar were the day-to-day concerns: player selection, in-game management and discipline. That falls on the coach.

There were also reports out of Pittsburgh that Bylsma had lost the room and specifically that he wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Not many coaches would survive that.

In Friday’s press conference, Penguins president David Morehouse said the search for a new GM was already underway and that Shero’s replacement would be tasked with analyzing the organization and given the latitude to decide on the fate of the coaching staff.

On the one hand, it would be incredibly surprising to see Bylsma back next season, given the reports of detached stars and the coach’s too-long record of falling short in the playoffs. But since he is still with the organization after Shero’s departure, we have to entertain the thought Bylsma will be back next season.

And since he’s still there today, why wouldn’t the new GM keep him?

Right away, Shero’s replacement has a panic card to play that he will inherit from his predecessor. Rather than fire his coach, Shero extended Bylsma’s contract and stayed loyal to him. That’s got to be at least a partial reason why the GM was let go today. By keeping Bylsma, Shero’s replacement will have something to do (i.e. someone to fire) should things go wrong during next regular season or playoffs.

Another reason to keep Bylsma? With so many coaching vacancies around the NHL right now – including Washington – the Penguins may not want him to fall into the hands of a direct competitor. And even though Bylsma seemed destined to take the fall for a fifth-consecutive early bailout, is there a better option for the Penguins right now? Barry Trotz comes with all sorts of credentials, but is his system really the best fit for a team centered around offensive stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang? Is Jeff Blashill, coach of the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, a better option? He’s never had a head job in the NHL. Adam Oates? Who?

Bylsma did lead Pittsburgh to a second place finish in the East, despite his team suffering the most man-games lost to injury this season. In all, Bylsma has a 252-117-32 record behind the Penguins bench. That’s nothing to sneeze at, even with all the other concerns about how little he adapts.

But finally, there’s the Mike Babcock factor. Could this be the Penguins’ ultimate goal? The current Red Wings coach has one season left on his deal with Detroit and, if he became available, would be able to pick almost any job he wanted, anywhere in the world. And when it comes to plum coaching positions, does it get any better than working with Crosby and Malkin?

Whoever the new GM is, it would be hard to fathom them not being interested in chasing after Babcock. If that is the Penguins’ end-goal here, they wouldn’t be too gung-ho on hiring a coach replacement this off-season. What would definitely not get this team back on the Stanley Cup track is a sudden wave of coaching changes.

Shero being fired is somewhat of a shocker, but it’s also a transition that made sense. And maybe the incoming GM will still fire and replace Bylsma this summer, because with all the tumult, keeping him around doesn’t seem to be the best laid plan.

Unless that plan is to acquire Babcock in one year.

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