PITTSBURGH (AP) — Only Scotty Bowman and the late Bob Johnson were more successful as the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach than Michel Therrien was, and both of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
No Penguins coach engineered a turnaround like Therrien did. No Penguins coach, it can be argued, got more from his teams than Therrien did.
None of that mattered in a league where no coach is likely to keep his job long when a team expected to contend for the Stanley Cup is in danger of missing the playoffs.
Therrien paid the price for the Penguins' post-Stanley Cup slump, getting fired Sunday night with more than two seasons left on a $1-million-a-year contract he signed shortly after coaching them to the NHL finals last season. He was replaced by minor-league coach Dan Bylsma, a former NHL forward who was given only a few hours to prepare for Monday afternoon's game against the New York Islanders.
"I owe it to the franchise and the organization to take the steps necessary that I think are best, and that's what led me to do what I did," general manager Ray Shero said.
Therrien wasn't a players' coach — no, he was always the boss, a disciplinarian who demanded that his stars play both ends of the ice — but his rebuilding effort was unequaled in the franchise's 42-year history.
In December 2005, Therrien inherited from the ousted Eddie Olczyk a team that averaged only 25 wins over four seasons. In barely a year, Therrien transformed it into one that won 47 games each of the last two seasons and made the franchise's first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 16 years.
Even with world-class forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin atop Therrien's lineup and Marc-Andre Fleury in net, not much has gone right with this team since it opened the season 12-4-3. Since mid-November, the Penguins are 15-21-2 during a slide that has dropped them into 10th place in the Eastern Conference, five points out of the last playoff spot with a 27-25-5 record.
"I'm not sure where it went wrong, to be honest," Shero said. "It's been a tough year, we're all disappointed with the results, and our expectations were higher."
The Penguins are 1-7-1 in their last nine road games, including a 6-2 loss in Toronto on Saturday night in which they led 2-1 after two periods.
After that, Shero had seen enough, and Therrien became the fifth NHL coach to be replaced this season.
"I didn't part like the way, the direction the team was headed," Shero said. "I've watched for a number of weeks and, at the end of the day, the direction is not that I wanted to have here. I wasn't comfortable, and that's why the change was made."
No doubt ownership isn't comfortable, either — the Penguins' budget for this season and next, their final two seasons in Mellon Arena, are built around making the playoffs. Anything short of that will be an off-ice hit for the club's financial ledger before they move into a new arena.
Bylsma is convinced this season can be saved, despite the Penguins' 8-13-1 record since late December.
"We need to put the brakes on — we're in a hole, but we need to stop digging and get focused on what we need to do to play good hockey," said Bylsma, who was 35-16-1-2 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL). "We need to be an aggressive group, and get focused on playing back to our strengths, and focus away from this situation the last while here."
To do that, he said, the Penguins must again become a fast, offensive-driven team.
"With the strengths we have, we should be able to go into buildings and make teams deal with the quality of players we have at every position," said the 38-year-old Bylsma, an NHL right wing with Los Angeles and Anaheim from 1995-2004. "I look at a group that can win games right now, and we need to do that. We can do this, but the players have to believe we can do this."
Bylsma coached during the Penguins' training camp and has been on the ice with nearly every player currently in uniform. He was hired on an interim basis, but is expected to coach at least the rest of the season.
"We want to be aggressive, get our fast and skilled players on their toes and going, and bring a passion and work ethic to the game," Bylsma said. "We'll add the other situations — style — after (that)."
The 45-year-old Therrien, once the Montreal Canadiens coach, was a finalist for the coach of the year award in 2006-07, after the Penguins improved by 47 points over the previous season, the fourth-best turnaround in a season in NHL history.
The Penguins were 94-51-19 over the previous two seasons, including a 47-27-8 record for 102 points last season, when they won their first division title in 10 years. They lost only two games in three rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs before being eliminated by Detroit during a six-game Stanley Cup finals.
Pittsburgh's only two previous trips to the finals came when they won the Stanley Cup in 1991, with Johnson as coach a few months before he died of cancer, and 1992, with Bowman as coach.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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