Connect with us

Penguins

How Much Longer Will Sullivan Last? He Needs Change, Too

Published

on

Pittsburgh Penguins Mike Sullivan

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.

Subscribe to PHN+

Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

14 Comments
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
14 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Eric Bouchard
Eric Bouchard
1 year ago

I’ll say it again…..Bring Gerard Gallant before someelse does. (like Washington when they get that early exit against NY Islanders) then the potential of having a new system is realy decreased a lot more. And a RIVAL teams gets THE #1 candidate for the job you need to do yourself

Ricardo58
Ricardo58
1 year ago

As Sullivan is quoted at beginning of the article and I paraphrase the message from the coaching staff resonated for much of the season Is the main reason I was quite surprised he didn’t resign when his 3 assistant coaches were let go. The 3 assistants became escape goats. IMO Martin and Gonchar were very solid. I have no idea about Recchi other than criticism concerning the poor PP. Obviously, Sully entrusted him to do the job and could have over ruled any decision he didn’t like. I think Sully is a very good coach who has a short shelf… Read more »

Katz
Katz
1 year ago

I thought the trading moves before the Washington 2nd round loss were bad at the time and wrote as such . Then the following seasons trade deadline debacle with Brassard I also thought was too cute by half. Then this season the additions were simply superfluous basically subtraction by addition. So what % of those trades were Rutherford acting of Sullivan’s wishes? Certainly the loss of Cole was, how about Haglan? Reaves we know was Sullivan and I to this day believe they could have got past Washington with him in the lineup. Simon, Murray and possibly Sheary were/are Sully… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95
1 year ago
Reply to  Katz

There’s nothing wrong with Simon. He would have been an upgrade over Marleau if healthy. He’s a solid NHLer that does so many things right.

If Reeves was Sully’s target, why didn’t he play him. That looked more like Rutherford being intent on “grit” and handcuffing Sullivan.

Murray is the only proven playoff goalie that the Pens have. Again, a no brainier to start him on the playoffs and he wasn’t bad at all.

Katz
Katz
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay95

Simon played major minutes with Crosby in last years sweep by the Isles, including significant PP time. You’re fine with that?

Jay95
Jay95
1 year ago
Reply to  Katz

No. Definitely not fine with anyone’s play against the Isles. But, I’m ok with Simon in the bottom 6. For me, every time I go to a game I’m surprised at how good Simon is away from the puck and doing tiny little details that you just can’t pick up unless you start watching him. He’s actually REALLY good in the neutral zone and at facilitating break outs. So, a perfect 3rd liner who can play both wings and jump up if needed. But, I do see how he’s an easy guy to overlook because his “numbers” aren’t there in… Read more »

Jay95
Jay95
1 year ago
Reply to  Katz

Oh! And, I do want to add that the loss of Cole is ABSOLUTELY on Sully. And, if we keep Cole (a true defensive D man who can still move the puck) we don’t pick up Johnson who just wishes he was Cole. Also agree on Hagelin. But, none of could imagine how bad Brassard got.

Web1350
1 year ago
Reply to  Katz

Totally agree. Sullivan is stubborn and Rutherford buys into it. Rutherford needs to “grow a pair” and tell Sullivan, “I’m the GM and make the moves and you WILL play these guys”. Ryan Reaves needed more ice time, was a good guy in the “room”, can actually contribute a goal or two, and is as tough as they come which is what this team needs to counteract the Tom Wilson’s of the division. Simon is a bum and couldn’t hit the net with a handful of rice.

Jay95
Jay95
1 year ago
Reply to  Web1350

I’m still going to disagree about Simon. But, I do believe that, with additional minutes, Reeves can fit the up pace, attacking, game. However, Rutherford paid WAY too much for him.

David Heyl
1 year ago

As I watch the playoffs it is obvious small speed teams don’t beat big sandpaper speed teams. Pens have no physical presence and nothing on the horizon. Sullivan had recent success and we should all be grateful. The question to be asked will he be able to pick his OWN asst coaches? I doubt it!

William Maloni
William Maloni
1 year ago

Preach it, Brother Dan!!!

Peter Walters
Peter Walters
1 year ago

It’s Rutherford who needs to go not Sully!

jackw
jackw
1 year ago

“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.” That’s the problem right there. The job should be to build a team that complements the stars and to install a system that leverages their strengths – which is a job for the coach and GM. Both have failed. The GM made several great personnel decisions, but do these outweigh the awful decisions (Reeves, Brassard, Hagelin, Sheahan, Cole…. it goes on and on)? And some of those bad moves were directly impacted by either… Read more »

Julien Sened
Julien Sened
1 year ago

Je pense qu’il y a pas d’inquiétude à avoir au sujet de Sullivan et ses troupes ; c’est une équipe qui joue les séries depuis prêt de 15ans maintenant et pour qu’un groupe connaissent du succès en compétition, ne relève pas que des entraîneurs. j’imagine qu’il faut une cohésion totale dans une équipe et cela implique un but en commun. Peut être que certains ont mal vécu le congé forcer, certains souffrait peut-être de blessures enfin le moindre grain de sable dans l’engrenage dérègle une team. Pour le licenciement des coaches adjoint, cela était nécessaire pour proposer des nouvelles perspectives… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Julien Sened

Join PHN Extra!

Join PHN+ today for exclusive content from Dan and Shelly plus a completely Google ad-free experience.

PHN+

Or enter your email below to sign-up for our mailing list.

Thank you!

Something went wrong.

No thanks. I don't want.