Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is ill, symptomatic with COVID-19. But his fingerprints are still all over the team’s functions as he works from his sickbed. Or at least his couch.
Which is what anyone who has witnessed his passion for coaching might expect.
Sullivan was replaced in an interim basis by assistant Todd Reirden for Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against Philadelphia after he learned earlier in the day that he had tested positive for the virus. It’s not clear how long he will be away from the team.
Even though Sullivan was restricted from being at PPG Paints Arena, much less behind the bench, he helped coach the Penguins. He just did so virtually.
“During the game we’re able to go with WebEx,” Reirden said. “Fortunately, he was feeling better as the day went on (Thursday). He was able to talk to us between periods. We were able to have some communication there.”
When the healthy members of the Penguins staff got to the UPMC Lemieux Complex Friday morning, Sullivan was waiting for them – virtually, again, of course.
Some things, such as putting Bryan Rust back in his normal spots as he went through his first full-participation practice, were no doubt no-brainers, but “planning practice, planning some rosters, we were bouncing ideas off each other and getting his input on things from what he had seen,” Reirden said.
With what seemed to be a bit of humor aimed at anyone who might be thinking micromanagement – with a mask on, it was impossible to see if he was smiling — Reirden said, “Obviously, the more he continues to improve health-wise and feels up to it, we’re anxiously awaiting his phone calls whenever he can make them.”
The input is appreciated, Reirden made clear.
“There’s been a good communication flow through everybody,” he said.
Even in-game, Sullivan has found new ways to coach.
“He has access to replays and things like that,” Reirden said. “It’s something that you have limited access to on the bench. Sometimes he can review a play during a commercial, those type of things, when he’s at home watching the game and helping us out. He’s able to dive into some different areas than he would normally be able to if he was on the bench. That’s been a unique element that he brings.”
Reirden was previously an assistant for the Penguins before serving as associate and then head coach of the Washington Capitals. He rejoined the Penguins before last season, the thick of the pandemic.
While no one could have specifically foreseen Sullivan getting COVID-19 and Reirden stepping in temporarily, there has been a sense of everyone remaining on their toes during the pandemic.
“He’s probably had the best quote to prepare us for this: Expect the unexpected,” Reirden said.
The Penguins over the years have sometimes had an assistant up in the press box during game as an eye in the sky. This season, skills coach Ty Hennes has at times been on the bench as Sullivan tries to give him a fresh perspective.
That doesn’t mean that when Sullivan recovers and returns, the Penguins will add a couch coach, someone who can offer an in-game, at-home, TV perspective as Sullivan is relegated to doing now.
But who knows?
Reirden just seems happy with the help Sullivan can provide while he’s away, and for the preparation the remaining staff can fall back on.
“He’s such a great coach and put such a great blueprint in place for our team,” Reirden said. “Now it’s up to us to follow through on what he’s done and that blueprint.”