Authenticity key to success of Boudreau, Bylsma

by Barry Svrluga || Washington Post

AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau has the Capitals in the second round for the first time since 1998.

Look at them now, and they don’t look the parts they did when they were the ones wearing the skates and the pads.

Dan Bylsma is tall, lean and bespectacled, appearing much more like a published author (which he is) than a grinding, role-playing forward (which he was).

Bruce Boudreau is, shall we say, stocky in a maybe-he’s-a-plumber sort of way, and it’s hard to imagine the scorer’s touch he once had, all those years ago, in the American Hockey League.

Friday, Bylsma, the 38-year-old coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boudreau, his 54-year-old counterpart with the Washington Capitals, will be constantly countering each other, changing strategy and lines on the fly, adjusting to the flow of a crucial Game 4 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Left unsaid and unnoticed at Mellon Arena will be the fact that theirs is a relationship that dates back more than 15 years, and that even with all the tweaks that go along with coaching hockey at the highest level, they both arrived at this point for one reason.

"Haven’t changed a thing," Boudreau said last month, as he completed his first full season as Capitals coach.

"I think the best thing that I can say about myself," Bylsma said last week, "is I have been myself."

The focus in this series — which the Capitals lead, two games to one — has been squarely on its stars, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, along with rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov of the Capitals. Boudreau and Bylsma maintain that the players will determine the outcome, that they have only bit parts.

But even with all the talent on the ice, neither team would be here without its head coach.

In November 2007, Washington General Manager George McPhee, whose team had the worst record in the league, fired Glen Hanlon and turned to the Hershey Bears, the club’s affiliate in the AHL, from which he plucked Boudreau.

This past January, Pittsburgh General Manager Ray Shero, whose team reached the Stanley Cup finals a year ago but had slipped outside the playoff picture, fired Michel Therrien and turned to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the club’s affiliate in the AHL, from which he plucked Bylsma.

The results, in each case, have been the revival of a team and the birth of what could be a long-term coaching solution. Boudreau’s 2007-08 Capitals finished 37-17-7 and won the Southeast Division.

Bylsma’s Penguins finished 18-3-4 and stormed to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, then beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.

But even before all this NHL glory, they admired each other a bit, whether it be during encounters at coaching clinics or prior to that, in obscure minor-league hockey outposts such as Muskegon, Mich.

Boudreau — a deft scorer during his days in the AHL who only played 141 NHL games, spread over eight seasons — was making the transition to coaching with the Muskegon Fury of the old Colonial Hockey League in the early 1990s. There was a player from nearby Grand Haven, Mich., who Boudreau liked. It was Bylsma, then a 23-year-old forward for Moncton in the AHL, having not yet made his debut in what would be an NHL career that spanned parts of nine seasons.

"Everybody talked about what a great person he was and great work ethic that he had, and he did," Boudreau said. "He was one of those typical third- or fourth-liners that blocked a lot of shots, had tremendous character. His skill level was not right up there with Crosby, but I mean, his work ethic and love for the game, you knew he’d be a good coach."

Dan Bylsma’s Penguins finished 18-3-4 to secure the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Those are the qualities Boudreau sometimes mentions about himself, the passion he has for hockey, which explains why a man would play until he was 37, even if the last nine of those years included only seven NHL games. During his itinerant minor league career — which included games for 11 different teams, including one in Germany — Boudreau’s appreciation for his sport didn’t diminish. It increased.

Tom Fitzgerald, now an assistant under Bylsma with the Penguins, was a first-year pro with Springfield of the AHL in 1988, when Boudreau was the Indians’ captain.

"I don’t think he’s changed much since then," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "To see him, and watch his interviews, he’s just black and white. It’s one or it’s the other. He calls it the way he sees it, and he was like that back then. He was a fun guy. He was great to us as kids at that time."

That was true, Fitzgerald said, even though Boudreau was 33 and Fitzgerald just 20. It is a quality, Fitzgerald said, that transfers well for both Boudreau and Bylsma in coaching. Even though both were thrown into the NHL in midseason, they had a clear idea of how they wanted to present themselves to their players.

"The reality is, these players — whether they’re prospects in the American League or NHL stars — they all want to be taught," Fitzgerald said. "They need to learn. And Dan, that’s his M.O. It’s not about telling, but showing."

So when Bylsma got to Pittsburgh, he continued to show. Earlier this week, he worked with Crosby — who had been beaten regularly by Washington’s Dave Steckel on faceoffs — on winning draws, and Crosby beat Steckel on the faceoff that led to the winning goal in overtime of Game 3.

Thursday, as the Penguins skated at their suburban Pittsburgh practice facility, Bylsma jumped into drills with his team, even throwing his body onto the ice in an effort to block a pass.

"There’s no panic in his mindset," said veteran forward Bill Guerin, who played against Bylsma for years. "There’s no helter-skelter. It’s almost black and white. He’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re turning the puck over too many times,’ not, ‘You’re turning the puck over too many times because you don’t care.’"

Capitals players, too, talk of Boudreau’s straight-up approach. "You know what he’s telling you is what he means," said defenseman Mike Green, who excelled under Boudreau at Hershey and in the NHL. "There are no games."

Which, of course, there could have been. Another similarity: Boudreau and Bylsma walked into locker rooms dominated by the outsized presences of Ovechkin and Crosby, the NHL’s premier talents. Yet neither has altered his approach because of one player.

Boudreau frequently skates at practice with Ovechkin, talking at length with his star, but he quickly calls him out when Ovechkin plays poorly. Thursday, Crosby said Bylsma has "maintained the same personality, the exact same approach" even when the Penguins were down by two games.

"My only concern was: Would he be different at this level?" McPhee said of Boudreau. "Would he try to be something he’s not? Would he be intimidated by certain players? And he hasn’t."