by Brian Coe || AHL On The Beat Archive
What does a National Hockey League head coach do 10 hours after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals? He drives to Wilkes-Barre, of course.
At least, that’s what Pittsburgh bench boss Dan Bylsma did last week.
And he didn’t make the trip an easy one.
Bylsma guided the NHL Pens to a 6-2 win in Game Seven of the East Division Finals versus the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, May 13. Shortly after that contest, the former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach jumped on the team bus to head for the airport to catch a flight back to the ‘Burgh.
At the same time, Pittsburgh assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher and director of hockey administration Jason Botterill headed north to Pennsylvania via car to meet with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff and players for exit interviews following the team’s loss in the AHL’s second playoff round.
After he had a chance to soak in the thrilling victory over the Caps, Bylsma realized that the off days coming up afforded him a chance to spend some time with his wife and son, who were still ensconced in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He made a quick phone call to Fletcher and Botterill to check on their progress.
Unfortunately, the duo was already about an hour into the trip, and turning around to pick up Bylsma would subsequently tack an additional two hours onto their travel.
So what’s a coach to do? How about fly back to Pittsburgh, jump in a car at 5:00 a.m. and drive all the way back to Wilkes-Barre.
The next time Bylsma heads to the region will probably be to pack up his belongings after he was named Pittsburgh’s full-time head coach prior to the second round of the playoffs. It’s a situation that even he has trouble comprehending at this point.
It was less than a year ago that Bylsma was an assistant coach with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, helping the team advance to the Calder Cup Finals for the third time in team history. The team’s success during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons helped to draw attention to then-head coach Todd Richards, who was offered an assistant coaching position with the San Jose Sharks last summer.
Richards’ acceptance of that job left the top spot with the AHL Pens open, and Bylsma was the natural choice to take over after serving as an assistant with the club during Richards’ tenure.
Bylsma guided Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a 35-16-1-2 mark over the first 54 games of the season and, when Pittsburgh decided to make a coaching change in mid-February, was promoted to interim head coach.
The former forward with the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks would be lying to you if he told you he expected to be in this position right now.
“You certainly have plans and goals, and you certainly are working towards them. But life often jumps at you unexpectedly,” he said during his stopover in Wilkes-Barre. “But to say at this time last year that I was going to be the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and then move on to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then move on to the conference finals…”
Bylsma’s success since being promoted has been staggering. He took a team mired in 10th place in the conference standings and drove them all the way to fourth place by posting an 18-3-4 record over the final 25 games of the NHL campaign.
“Actually I probably felt more comfortable as a head coach in Pittsburgh than I did for the first 20 games here in Wilkes-Barre,” said Bylsma, who had never served as a head coach prior to this season. “I had that experience [with the AHL Penguins], knew the organization and then was just thrust in the fire and just kind of took it from there.”
But Bylsma isn’t the only person to benefit from time spent with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Pittsburgh roster this season featured seven regulars who all began their professional careers with the minor league Penguins. Here’s a quick look at the AHL careers of the current Pittsburghers who were once regulars across the state.
Marc-Andre Fleury: Fleury appeared in 66 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton from 2003-2006, and suited up for an additional five contests during a rehab stint with the club in 2007-08. He ranks third on the team’s all-time wins list (39), tied for fourth with five career shutouts and sixth with a 2.26 goals against average.
Max Talbot: Talbot honed his trouble-making skills during two full seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (2004-05 and 2005-06), recording 51 points (19+32) in 117 games. But after recording four goals in the first five games of the 2006-07 season, Talbot was promoted to Pittsburgh, where he has held down a regular spot ever since.
Tyler Kennedy: Kennedy played in 40 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the 2006-07 season, recording 37 points (12+25) before suffering a season-ending injury. He still managed to finish seventh on the team in scoring and first with a plus-15 rating. He appeared in nine games with the club to start the following season, but was quickly recalled by Pittsburgh and has been with the NHL team ever since aside from a one-game rehab appearance midway through the 2007-09 campaign.
Alex Goligoski: Goligoski, who turned pro after his junior season at the University of Minnesota, recorded 38 points (10+28) in 70 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the 2007-08 season, then set a new AHL record for points by a rookie in the playoffs as the Penguins advanced to the Calder Cup Finals. Those performances earned him a spot on the NHL roster to start the 2008-09 season and, after spending the second half of the campaign back in Wilkes-Barre, Goligoski now looks primed to become a permanent part of the Pittsburgh blueline.
Kris Letang: Letang’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton career lasted only 10 games during the start of the 2007-08 season, as he did enough in that short amount of time (1+6=7) to show the Pittsburgh brass that he was seasoned enough to join the big club.
Brooks Orpik: The hard-hitting defenseman spent two full seasons (2001-02 and 2002-03) with Wilkes-Barre, recording 39 points (6+32) in 149 games. He also suited up for three games with the team during the 2003-04 regular season, and was a key component of the team that advanced to the Calder Cup Finals that year.
Rob Scuderi: As dependable as they come, Scuderi patrolled the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defensive zone for four seasons (2001-02 through 2004-05) and has appeared in more games with the AHL club (305) than any player aside from Tom Kostopoulos (318). His career mark of plus-26 ranks in the top five on the team’s all-time list.