I hesitate to make a connection between Dan Bylsma‘s results as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins and during his stint in charge of the United States Olympic team, but it’s almost irresistible.
Besides in Sochi, where else have we seen a Bylsma-coached squad dominate lesser competition and then look utterly overwhelmed against greater foes?
Maybe it’s a coincidence, with the Penguins’ 2013 playoff run just happening to mirror the Americans’ timid exit from the Olympic men’s hockey tournament. After all, the rosters and situations couldn’t have been more different, especially since Bylsma’s USA duties amounted to moonlighting in his spare time.
Nevertheless, we would be whistling past the graveyard if we didn’t at least acknowledge there are troubling similarities among Bylsma’s big-moment disappointments. Turning the clock back further than last spring, we find that each of the Penguins’ postseason exits since 2009 could be classified in some shape or form as collapses.
What just happened in Russia, as the United States went from the consensus best team in the tournament to scoring nary a goal in two medal-round games, won’t exactly help shove the Pens’ recent ugly finishes out of mind. But on the other hand, how much of Team USA’s discouraging late reversal can we pin on Bylsma?
From this perspective, not that much. As American captain Zach Parise admitted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi on Monday, the United States’ primary problem against Canada and Finland wasn’t that Bylsma’s system was any less aggressive than what was deployed in the previous four games. Rather, the main issue was the players’ own passivity under Olympic pressure.
Team USA’s failure to follow up on the silver medal it earned four years ago boils down more to lack of player leadership than coaching. There’s no one to blame for the Americans’ cautiousness than the skaters themselves. Especially against Canada, Bylsma’s bunch looked like they were trying to keep it close rather than gunning for the victory.
The embarrassing 5-0 defeat to Finland is another story. USA dominated the first period, but became noticeably flustered after Teemu Selanne and Jussi Jokinen scored early in the second to put them down 2-0. Resignation took over in the third, with the Americans taking numerous frustration penalties as the score got out of hand.
All in all, it wasn’t the finest hour for veteran professionals and two-time Olympians such as Parise, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Suter, Patrick Kane and others. They didn’t respond well to the heightened expectations this time around, a fact which reflects much more poorly on them than Bylsma.
According to media and player accounts before and during the Games, Bylsma pushed to foster a loose atmosphere on Team USA. However, no amount of massaging could prepare the squad for what they faced in the semifinal. One could argue that no one was going to beat Canada in Sochi, but the way the Americans shrunk from the challenge limited any opportunity for an upset.
Like all the folks involved – especially the decision makers at USA Hockey who constructed the roster – Bylsma deserves to take his fair share of blame back to America.
What the 43-year-old coach doesn’t deserve is the role of scapegoat. How the Olympics ended for the United States created a crap sandwich, and everyone has to take a bite.