Players who have been in the NHL for some years probably have been through a coach’s firing or three. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no different. The most recent NHL pink slip – Gerard Gallant in Vegas — served as a reminder.
For one thing, it was a reminder of what the Penguins have in coach Mike Sullivan, who has been part of the early discussion for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year for the way he has guided the Penguins through a dizzying array of injuries to remain among the top handful of teams in the league.
“It’s a team thing,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “Coach and players have to be all in together. The message can be as good as (can be, but) if the players don’t want to do it or they don’t buy into it, usually it’s not going to go well.
“I think it’s just the fact that we have good chemistry with our coaching staff. They make us understand why we’re playing this way. They show us the success that we’ve got. I think that’s why we believe in it and we believe in what Sully is bringing to us.”
It might be difficult to remember, but after last season there were at least a few murmurs that Sullivan could find his way to the hot seat if the Penguins started poorly, and that Mike Vellucci might be a ready replacement after he was hired as coach and general manager of the franchise’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
At this point, a change in coaches seems far from anyone’s radar.
But you never know what could happen.
Even with the high turnover among coaches in the NHL, the Gallant firing produced some shockwaves. That could serve as another reminder for the Penguins and every other team.
The Golden Knights sat fifth in the tight Pacific Division but just three points off the lead, one point behind second place, and were tied for a wildcard spot in the Western Conference.
Gallant, the first coach in the Vegas expansion franchise’s history, led the team to the Stanley Cup final in its first season.
But the Golden Knights had lost four straight – a skein that started with the Penguins’ 4-3 win at Vegas Jan. 7 — and perhaps were not playing as well as management expected, so the club decided to hit the ejection button.
Gallant’s firing was the seventh coaching change this season, which is not far past the halfway point. Also gone are Mike Babock in Toronto, John Hynes in New Jersey, Bill Peters in Calgary, Jim Montgomery in Dallas, Peter Laviolette in Nashville and Peter DeBoer in San Jose. DeBoer replaced Gallant.
“It’s a reality of how competitive the business is,” Sullivan said. “There’s pressure to win in every city. It just seems in today’s game, there’s an elevated form of pressure on everybody that’s involved in the business – whether it be managers, scouts, coaches, players. I think that’s the nature of the business and how it’s evolved.
“These guys are all real good coaches and they’re well prepared and I know how invested they are in trying to help their teams win. It’s an indication of how high the stakes are and the pressure that’s involved with winning in every respective city in the league.”
Sullivan was hired in December 2015, promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to replace Mike Johnston. The Penguins went on a tear and won the Stanley Cup in 2016, and again in 2017. That Sullivan already was getting at least a little bit of a stink-eye after the team was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders last spring speaks to the NHL culture.
Mike Sullivan was the second coach in less than a decade to ascend from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as an in-season replacement and guide the Penguins to a big turnaround culminating in the Stanley Cup. Dan Bylsma did that in 2009, replacing Michel Therrien.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process for players.
“As a player, you don’t feel good about it. You have to turn the page and focus on what it is the new coach needs to focus on,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, part of those three recent Cup teams. “Everyone’s got to kind of prove themselves all over again. There’s a feeling-out process there a bit.
“You see St. Louis did it last year, and they ended up winning. They were able to do that pretty quickly. You see teams doing it a little bit more now. It’s never an easy thing to go through.”
The Blues were in last place in November 2018 when Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo and led them to a huge turnaround, including the 2019 Cup.
While things look strong and stable with the Penguins, they know at some point things could change, and players will have to adapt.
“It’s another kind of a wake-up call for the guys. Something’s not clear,” Letang said of what leads to many of the firings. “Obviously, it’s easier to change one coach than 26 guys. Usually, it’s a shock, but at the same time, it kind of creates a new challenge for everybody in the room. It’s a chance to prove what you can do to a new coach. Maybe he sees it differently than the old coach. It’s always a shock, but it’s always a new start also.”