NHL playoffs to determine Bylsma’s fate

PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma has won more games, regular season and playoffs, than any other Pittsburgh Penguins coach. He is one of three Penguins coaches with his name on the Stanley Cup (the other two are in the Hall of Fame).

GM Ray Shero reaffirmed his belief in Bylsma with a two-year contract extension last summer. The Penguins have had a successful regular season, again topping 100 points and nailing down a division title with relative ease despite a relentless series of injuries to key players.

So why does it feel like his job will be on the line when the playoffs start in about 10 days?

This is about expectations. The Penguins are built to seriously compete for the Cup every year. They haven’t been to the Final since they defeated Detroit in 2009, the season when Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien in February.

The current Penguins are an interesting mix of state-of-the-art skill and utter mediocrity. When you’re paying superstar salaries to some of the best talents in the game, the rest of the roster suffers. The Penguins can load the top two lines with enviable talent, but they’re in trouble if circumstances dictate rolling three (or heaven forbid) four lines.

The past playoff meltdowns have been well-documented. After winning two rounds last year, they fell hard to Boston in four games with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin getting shut out.

If something like that happens this year, look for the Penguins to make a coaching change. NHL coaches generally don’t stay in one place too long. It’s not always their fault, but it’s the most efficient way to change an atmosphere gone stale.

Maybe that halting monotone Bylsma uses in interviews has faded into background noise for the Penguins. Maybe his systems are lacking. Perhaps this roster is just too unbalanced for playoff hockey.

If the Penguins exit in the first or second round, Bylsma is as good as gone. He might also be in trouble if there’s another third-round collapse like the one last spring. Shero, the son of a legendary coach, is patient, but one of the Penguins owners has a long history of devaluing coaches.

Not a kid?

It’s hard to think of Crosby as old, but that’s sort of a theory in ESPN Magazine.

Their article cites researcher Eric Tulsky’s work suggesting Crosby is on the cusp of the time when NHL forwards start declining.

Per the magazine, “average scoring rates for centers and wingers start dropping off at age 25 and plummet once they hit 30.” It further notes that Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky got the majority of their goals and all but one of their combined six Stanley Cups by age 26.

Crosby turns 27 in August.

Kicked out

Fox recently dropped Brian Billick as an NFL analyst. Fox doesn’t do many Steelers games, but this should delight the lunatic fringe of Steeler Nation who believe that anyone who ever lost a game to them holds a lifetime grudge (Hello, Cris Collinsworth).

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.