Every NHL coach has a shelf life. Even the best of all time, Scotty Bowman coached five teams, and not every end to his tenures was entirely his choice. When Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan took over the Penguins bench on Dec. 12, 2015, the Penguins were in disarray, and sniping was internal and external.
Mike Sullivan changed to the Penguins, when few, if any, thought it possible. But how much more can he accomplish before the law of diminishing returns catches up to him, as it does every hockey coach?
“I felt as though the message was fairly clear for a lot of the season,” Sullivan said at his season-ending press conference. “That would suggest to me what the coaching staff is preaching is resonating with guys because, for a lot of the year, we had fairly decent success.”
LA Kings coach Darryl Sutter lasted three seasons after his LA team won its second Stanley Cup in 2014. Joel Quenneville lasted three-and-a-half seasons after his Chicago Blackhawks team won their third Stanley Cup in 2015.
Sullivan’s friend and long-time boss John Tortorella made it three seasons after winning the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004.
Sullivan has finished three seasons since the last silver chalice made its way to Point State Park, amid delirious fans. The organization and coach have since tried to retool the team around the stars with players who fit the coach, but the results have been unsuccessful.
“My concern is when things don’t go our way, we start to fizzle out, and we don’t have that same drive and determination that we should have and need to have,” GM Jim Rutherford said after the season. “Based on that, I’m looking at everything now.”
Those efforts to find Sullivan-style players have been part of the problem. The mix hasn’t worked, though it doesn’t appear sweeping changes will hit the Penguins roster.
“I plan to move forward with the core. These are good players. They still have good hockey left in them,” Rutherford said.
Penguins Past to Present
Previous head coach Mike Johnston was a nice enough guy and a very sharp hockey mind. The Penguins room promptly chewed him up and spit him out.
Before Sullivan, the team was known for talent and petulance. The Penguins could be beaten because they lacked discipline. The Penguins were known to take bad penalties when they were agitated, and they were known to give up. Opponents preyed on them, thusly.
The Penguins had precisely zero third-period comeback win in their 14 months under Johnston, but the problem went even further back.
The Boston Bruins administered a total and thorough beatdown to the Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final, and that seemed to be the Penguins’ last championship gasp. Coach Dan Bylsma, then Johnston oversaw consecutive first-round losses to the New York Rangers, and Johnston didn’t get a chance for a third.
A team with a core now in its 30s, trying to change its identity and resurrect its Stanley Cup hopes? Ha, yeah, right. There’s also some oceanfront property in Nebraska that I’d like to sell you.
Yet, that’s what Sullivan was able to accomplish. He commandeered the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room, just as he commanded them on the ice. The coach who spent most of the previous decade as an assistant, and was hired to be a minor league coach just a few months prior, was suddenly demanding obedience from an NHL team that many believed was uncoachable.
And Sullivan won.
“Just play” became a mantra as opponents picked at the Penguins, expecting the typical selfish reactions. Now, opponents found only a mature, determined Penguins team.
Sullivan won the battle for the traditionally talented and fragile Penguins soul, unlike any coach since Badger Bob Johnson in 1991.
However, a lot has changed in the four-and-a-half seasons since Sullivan took over the bench. In the days following the Penguins second straight early postseason exit, the Penguins canned all three assistant coaches.
Also indicating the seriousness, the ownership even dismissed company man Mark Recchi without an organization-job waiting.
In a PHN exclusive, sources said the call from ownership, which spurred the changes, also included the option to keep Sullivan. One potential reason Sullivan is still the Penguins coach is his contract runs through 2023. While the value is unknown, Sullivan signed after winning a couple of Stanley Cups and at the time when other organizations were dishing monster contracts to head coaches like Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz.
So, let’s assume Sullivan isn’t working for peanuts.
The other reason is that Sullivan was able to capture the Penguins’ attention when no one else could. His captured shutdown of Evgeni Malkin on the Penguins bench in 2016, (Shut the F*** up!) when Malkin wanted to continue complaining about the officials to the officials went viral, then legendary.
It worked, and it showed everything Sullivan had accomplished.
But here we are, it’s 2020. Sullivan has not been able to coax a strong postseason effort from his team since the weary legged group succumbed to the Washington Capitals in 2018, after two straight Stanley Cup championships.
The Penguins laid down against the New York Islanders in 2019. And they vanished against the inferior Montreal Canadiens in 2020.
GM Jim Rutherford is banking on Sullivan’s ability to lead and his tactical knowledge to design game plans suited for his players. Sullivan remains an outstanding coach, if not one of the best in the NHL.
But that pesky law of diminishing returns is stalking Sullivan, just as it did Sutter and Quenneville.
To fulfill his contract, Sullivan will also have to change. The same messages and the corresponding presentations haven’t been successful. Rather than adolescent, the Penguins looked geriatric against Montreal in the Qualifying Round.
Time moves forward. Things change. Recent history suggests
The Penguins need significant changes if they hope to avoid the slow, dreary slide to irrelevance, which follows most championship runs. Mike Sullivan will also need to make changes, or he too will become one of those Penguins changes.