By Matt Popchock

You criticized him for personnel moves that weren’t made prior to Game 7. You blamed him in part for a power play that, to that point, could be charitably described as inept.

But you can’t deny the Penguins wouldn’t even have been in Game 7, or perhaps even Game 1, if not for him.

Hopefully you still appreciate what he did for the 2010-11 Penguin squad as much as broadcasters around the National Hockey League apparently did, because, with all due respect to one of his predecessors, the late Herb Brooks, it was probably another “Miracle on Ice.”

Dan Bylsma’s receipt of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s outstanding head coach during the past regular season Wednesday night in Las Vegas puts an appropriate bow on a bizarre season that needs to be taken in context.

I can only name one other coach in franchise history–Marc Boileau–whose team squandered a three-games-to-one lead in a best-of-seven playoff series. But can you name one who led the Penguins to nearly unprecedented win and point totals despite the fact his three bell-cow forwards played all of two games together?

I didn’t think so.

If this were an “ordinary” season for the Pens in which they made yet another serious push for the Cup bolstered by two of the most gifted players on the planet, Nashville’s Barry Trotz would have my fictitious vote, and Vancouver’s Alain Vigneault would at least get serious consideration.

Clearly, though, this season was anything but ordinary.

Vigneault did a fine job guiding the Canucks to the President’s Trophy with the pressure of not just a town, but an entire province, and later, an entire country, to take the next step with the talent already assembled by GM Mike Gillis.

There’s also a lot to be said for Trotz, who got the Predators back to the playoffs, and there’s even more to be said for a man who stays employed for over a decade at a job where more successful men have come and gone, and still seems to get the most from his players.

But no one did more with less during the 2010-11 regular season than Bylsma. For over forty games, he had $17 million of talent sitting in the press box, and his team lost well over three hundred man-games to injury, which was even more than his Cup-winning team had to endure. Nevertheless, the Penguins posted the second-most wins (49) and points (106) in team history, and came incredibly close to stealing the Atlantic Division crown from the Flyers on the last weekend of the regular campaign.

Never mind that they didn’t leapfrog their hated rivals. The simple fact that this team, with its apocalyptic rash of injuries, stayed in contention is to Bylsma’s credit.

Could Vigneault’s Canucks have earned the top seed in the Western Conference if the Sedin twins were forced to spend the last three months of the season in coats and ties? Could Trotz’s Predators have outperformed the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in the Central Division standings and reached the postseason if they had to call up their top seven AHL scorers all at once?

I believe coaching can sometimes be over-valued in professional sports. Once players reach that level, success becomes less a matter of guidance, and more a matter of natural ability and execution. But these Penguins would not have tread water were it not for Bylsma’s reputation as a player’s coach, his belief in himself and his team, and his belief in his system. Without their Trojan horses, the Pens had to adapt to a totally new way of winning games–with steadfast and near-flawless defense–and he got them up for the challenge.

The argument that Bylsma’s accomplishments in the NHL to this point would not be possible without the foundation of order and discipline laid by Michel Therrien is a fair one. Four seasons ago, Therrien engineered a 47-point turnaround in Pittsburgh, the fourth-greatest single-season improvement in NHL history, and that Penguin team erased a six-year playoff drought as a result. But Therrien was passed over for the Jack Adams Award in favor of Vigneault–arguably, in my opinion, for political reasons.

Without crying too much over spilled milk, it’s nice to see the international media got it right this time.

Not only has it become evident that Bylsma is Ray Shero’s man for the foreseeable future, but it has also become evident that with Bylsma at the helm, this team has a chance to win night in and night out regardless of who is in uniform. That’s what it means to be a “coach of the year” in any sport. The fact he collected his 100th career NHL win this season–already–suggests the dawn of a new era of stability for this franchise.

Ignore the fact that this past season did not, by any means, end the way you wanted it to. Ignore the improvement he clearly needs when it comes to governing an effective power play. Ignore the possibility that not suiting up Eric Tangradi at the expense of others in that Tampa series constituted a glaring lapse in judgment on his part.

It stands to reason there is a learning curve for young coaches in the NHL, just as there is a learning curve for young players in the league. Bylsma’s resume and the patchwork Penguins’ accomplishments of the past regular season suggest his learning curve is short.

Remember that this team was, for quite some time, probably the hardest-working bunch in the NHL. Remember that, ultimately, they were barely eliminated by an eventual Eastern Conference finalist–and a much healthier team, for that matter.

The Penguins might not have had much to celebrate at the end of the 2010-11 season, but on Wednesday night “Disco Dan” deserved to dance.

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