Phil Kessel beware. These are Mike Sullivan’s Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins once belonged to superstars. What Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, even Sidney Crosby wanted, they got. The team as a matter of philosophy catered to the best players. Perhaps the world changed, perhaps just the organization, but the Penguins no longer cater to their best players.
Sullivan helped, pushed and ultimately transformed the Penguins from an emotionally sensitive, perhaps immature team into a professional juggernaut. His “Just Play” mantra was the antithesis of years of dumb retaliation penalties and being distracted by physical play. The Sullivan led Penguins became hardened veterans immune to the unnerving attempts of opponents.
You know the result. Back to Back Stanley Cup championships.
However, the fastest way out of Pittsburgh is to gain residency on Sullivan’s bad side. As Sullivan established himself, he has exerted more control of the roster. Drawing from his mentor John Tortorella, who is known for shaping rosters with preferred players and punting undesirable players, Sullivan has increasingly asserted himself on the team makeup.
If Kessel hopes to remain a Penguin, angering the coach is not the way to go about it. In the past, a rift with a star player would have the Penguins coach on the hot seat.
Now, the player is the one to worry.
Exhibit A: Ian Cole
Steady, gritty defenseman Ian Cole. The Penguins mid-season defensive struggles were lumped on Cole’s shoulders as the defenseman was banished to the press box for two separate stretches. The Penguins defense was, to many outside observers and this writer, better with Cole.
The row between Cole and Sullivan had many versions told in different corners. Read one of several stories by Pittsburgh Hockey Now here, “Mike Sulivan, Ian Cole Must Make Up, Now.”
Ryan Reaves, also traded with Cole at the trade deadline, was the highest scoring member of the Penguins fourth line. Despite the draft day trade to acquire Reaves, in which the Penguins traded out of the first round, Reaves role declined throughout the season. Reaves ice time dipped to about five minutes per night, or he was a healthy scratch, before the trade.
It took a while, but Vegas Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant has inserted and profited from Reaves presence in the lineup.
We don’t need to rehash for the 10,000th time, in the 2016 playoffs, it was Sullivan’s preference of then-rookie goaltender Matt Murray over Marc-Andre Fleury which effectively made the Penguins franchise goalie choice.
That Fleury, Cole, and Reaves were big personalities and jokesters, and Sullivan is an intense, serious coach is perhaps an interesting discussion point for another day and something to watch for future moves.
Star Player Treatment
Kessel exacerbated internal frustrations because he was a negative in the playoffs at 5v5. In the regular season, coaches trusted Kessel to make the right call about his injury. Knowing he can be sensitive or be upset, they granted him star player treatment to make the decision about the severity of his injuries.
That burned the Penguins.
Kessel chose to play, even after a playoff spot was assured but was a nightmare in playoffs at even strength. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford provided cover for Kessel in the clear-out day press conference, chalking up his performance to the cumulative effect of injuries.
Sullivan did not provide the same cover. In fact, Sullivan blew up Kessel’s spot.
Since Kessel chose not to chat with reporters after the season, Sullivan’s assessment became the official record.
“It was nothing significant. I can tell you that,” said Sullivan.
Kessel’s place in the team is significant. He registered 92 points with 34 goals. Kessel had 42 power play points, including 30 assists which are more than he had at even strength. That production is difficult to replace. However, in addition to Kessel offensive production, his defensive work was statistically deficient, even with defensive center Riley Sheahan. Read more in Kessel’s season ending report card.
Kessel’s star player treatment is probably over. If he hopes to remain a Penguin, he may start with a few concessions to the boss. Just like the rest of us.