The Buffalo Sabres officially moved on from the disappointment of missing out on the Mike Babcock sweepstakes when Tim Murray introduced Dan Bylsma as the 17th head coach in franchise history. For those that missed last night’s special edition of The Instigator Podcast, here are a few thoughts on the beginning of the Bylsma Era.
By inking Bylsma to a five year deal in the neighborhood of $3 million per year, Murray was able to snag the best available coach, and one of the few with a winning pedigree. While some fans may have had other candidates at the top of their lists, no one can disagree that getting a coach of Bylsma’s caliber to commit his future to the Sabres is a nice get for an organization that has taken its lumps around the hockey world over the last couple of seasons.
The Bylsma hire has been greeted by near unanimous approval from both local and national publications, and can be seen as the first bit of good press for the organization since Pat LaFontaine’s introductory press conference in November of 2014. That is not to say that what’s said in The Hockey News or TSN should be taken as gospel, but at the very least seeing some good things written about the team for a change is a bit of a morale booster.
As already mentioned Bylsma is a proven winner, having lifted the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009. Bylsma becomes only the third member of the organization with a championship, joining captain Brian Gionta and senior advisor Craig Patrick. Considering where the team currently stands and where it intends to go, having a coach who has won a ring calling the shots is of high importance. Last year’s roster included 10 players under the age of 25 (and four more that were 25); while those numbers are sure to change this season, I’m of the belief that those younger players will take Bylsma’s words a little more to heart than if they came from a first year NHL coach or one with a more spotty track record. A similar thought process may have been going through Tim Murray’s head, as he cited the ability to communicate with young players and understanding young people as a key reason Bylsma was given the job; one phrase used was that Bylsma “doesn’t just tell players what they have to do, but why they have to do it.”
One thing that goes hand in hand with that winning mentality that Dan Bylsma brings is the idea of culture. The term “culture” was mentioned by Bylsma at least a handful of times, and seems to be something he intends on instilling within the organization. The concept of having the right culture in the locker room and organization has been something that’s been bandied about for several years. In my opinion culture and leadership are fairly interchangeable and, for better or worse, the Sabres have had neither since 2007. There are a multitude of reasons as to why that is the case, but it is now up to Dan Bylsma to begin the process of changing that. In years past Darcy Regier tried to fill that void via the free agent market with the signings of players like Craig Rivet. Bylsma offers a shift from that thinking by saying that a team just doesn’t magically have the right culture by bringing in a guy who has it, and that culture is created by teaching the younger players in the dressing room what it takes to be successful. It’s an interesting departure from conventional thinking, that bringing a few high character veterans can instill that culture within a young dressing room. By saying that culture is going to be taught to the still developing core of the team Bylsma is already putting the onus young leaders like Zemgus Girgensons and Tyler Ennis to take the next step.
Bylsma’s hiring also cements another piece in Tim Murray’s plan to get the organization back to respectably. While Murray occasionally says some things that may not paint him in the best light publicly, the fact that he has formulated a plan and stuck with it to this point is to be commended. Dan Bylsma touched on the fact that he and Murray had spoken both before and during the Sabres’ courtship of Mike Babcock, which shows that even though the organization was allegedly convinced Babcock was coming to town Murray still had all his bases covered. Even during the fallout of the Babcock situation Murray continued to state that it would not alter the organization’s plan going forward, and Dan Bylsma referenced Murray’s vision going forward a handful of times as a reason he was even interested in the job.
Following along with that master plan, Murray is also tasked with filling the head job in Rochester. The coaching vacancy down the thruway has largely been forgotten since Chadd Cassidy was relieved of his duties, and will take on added importance as the Sabres add more youth in the draft and organizational depth in the months to come. Now that Dan Bylsma is in the fold and in sync with Murray it will be interesting to see who is tabbed to lead the prospects down on the farm. This offseason is the first opportunity Tim Murray has had to choose his head coach at the NHL level, and one would think he would already have a good idea of who he wants in Rochester as a result of his past work with the Senators and Ducks. Last year the Sabres got next to nothing in production from the group of players that were shuttled between Rochester and Buffalo. While some of that falls on how they were used by Ted Nolan, Chadd Cassidy didn’t seem to have many players prepared to make the jump to the next level. Murray will be sure to find someone who puts the prospects in the best position to make a seamless transition to the big club.
Lastly, hockey is fun again. If nothing else, Bylsma’s hiring signals the Sabres are ready to start the climb back to respectability. With the coaching situation sorted out the team, and the fans, can turn their attention to the impending arrival of Jack Eichel, and the free agency period only a short time away. We’re exactly four weeks from the draft, and free agency is less than a week after that. Before you know it we’ll be talking rookie camp and roster battles. It’s basically hockey season.