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Mike Sullivan Should Face Tough Questions About His Future



Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan

There have been too many times that the Pittsburgh Penguins have looked like a beaten bunch before the game is several minutes old. There have been too many no-show losses, too many festering problems, and too many players not performing to their own standards. As the Penguins season comes to the end of the road, only a long shot to make the playoffs, coach Mike Sullivan should face some difficult questions before automatically continuing as the Penguins coach.

Sullivan’s three-year extension, signed two years ago under former GM Ron Hextall, begins next season.

Sullivan is facing a river of public criticism. Losing brings that, and the Penguins have only one more win than loss this season. Sullivan is hardly blameless, and the checklist for keeping or removing a bench boss is starting to get sketchy for the coach in his ninth season.

The checklist is simple and applies to all coaches.

Is the coach getting the most from the team? Is the system geared for the personnel? Is the coach right for the direction of the team?

Accountability is a major theme of Sullivan’s tenure and his future. But is he still holding his team as accountable as he once did?

The external noise can be frustrating because too many hockey fans simply assume firing a coach makes players play better. Hey, the Penguins fired Michel Therrien and won a Stanley Cup. The Penguins fired Mike Johnston and won a Stanley Cup.

That’s how it’s done, right?

Unfortunately, that’s as oversimplified as it is wrong. The New York Islanders have lost five in a row and are no better with coach Patrick Roy than Lane Lambert. After beating the Penguins Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils, with new coach Travis Green, are now 3-5-0.

Jacques Martin has a losing record in 41 games behind the Ottawa Senators bench, and the LA Kings are just above water in 18 games with new coach Jim Hiller.

This season, only the Edmonton Oilers have significantly improved with a new coach.

Time is another oft-cited canard that muddies the water of genuine evaluation. Just because Sullivan has been on the job since December 2015 does not affect the evaluation of his performance in 2024.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has steadfastly defended Sullivan in a way that has managed to avoid talk of the dreaded “vote of confidence,” and his analysis of Sullivan and the situation seems genuine.

“If you don’t have (Sullivan), then you’re looking for (Sullivan). If you have him, you should keep him,” Dubas said on his recent team-hosted radio show.

However, when the totality of the season is digested, Sullivan should not be immune from the significant number of changes Dubas admitted would be necessary if the Penguins hope to be more competitive next season. Sullivan must answer some tough questions.

Is Sullivan getting the most from his team?

It’s hard to accurately answer the question as no team has been this old and attempted to remain competitive in a long time, and no team has had a core together longer, ever. Sullivan hasn’t just been the Penguins’ coach for eight-plus years. He’s also coached many of the same players for those eight-plus years.

Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin have been there since the beginning. Bryan Rust had Sullivan both in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh. The same goes for Tristan Jarry, who turned pro in 2015-16,

The first internal question Sullivan should face regards his own evolution. While total time spent on the job isn’t a good reason to demand change, softening over time is. Has Sullivan evolved and become easier on the veteran team, lessening accountability and thus keeping harmony but losing maximum effectiveness?

There are those close to the Penguins who recently wondered that aloud to Pittsburgh Hockey Now.

Accountability is the elephant in the room.

The Penguins have been mistake-filled for two seasons. Perhaps the only consistency has been the repeated, extraordinary, and jaw-dropping mistakes. While the mistakes are as much on the GMs for filling the roster with mistake-prone players, there was a time when Sullivan straightened out wayward players, including the stars.

However, the hockey world took note when Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella sent a loud shot across his team’s bow Tuesday by scratching popular captain Sean Couturier.

The move worked. The Flyers ended a seven-game losing streak against the Toronto Maple Leafs and looked like an inspired team.

Does anyone remember Sullivan’s famous “Sit the (expletive deleted) down” order to Evgeni Malkin early in Sullivan’s tenure? Sullivan had full command of those teams.

Yet effort has recently become a problem. Despite a playoff chase hanging over them, the Penguins have not looked consistently inspired over any stretch this season. Can players who have been together this long, accomplished this much (three Stanley Cups, countless personal achievements), and at this age be inspired in the same way as a newly constructed team that has not accomplished anything?

Can a coach actually command a bevy of mid-30s players, also including Jeff Carter, Erik Karlsson, and Reilly Smith?

Accountability. Inspiration.

The current environment of the Penguins must change, one way or another.

The Penguins System

Ah, the much talked about, little understood, maligned, and ignored system.

The Penguins’ philosophy has undergone a significant change since the beginning of the season. As the older players realized they could not play on the rush as they once did, Sullivan found traction pushing a low-to-high offensive game that stresses puck possession in the low zone and net-front activity while still allowing his squad the freedom of creativity.

It’s worked, kind of.

Down years by Reilly Smith and Rickard Rakell impeded the top six. The hows or whys are as inexplicable as any issue facing the Penguins, but the lack of goal-scoring has been a major hindrance.

Perhaps a few more goals somewhere would have sparked that inspired play. Like an old-timer fitting into some classic Ed Hardy jeans, the Penguins players have struggled with their age. When a team wants to play an open game on the rush, Sullivan’s squad is only too happy to turn back the clock and skate with any challenger who asks.

However, it’s almost always to the Penguins’ detriment because they’re not capable in the same ways anymore.

So, is that on Sullivan or on the players who have excelled for so long being unable to adjust, combined with a GM who hasn’t delivered complementary pieces?

This probably ties into the first checklist item, too.

The Power Play

Why does a power play with supremely talented players perform like the man advantage of an expansion team? Perhaps it goes to all checklist items. But surely someone or something must be held accountable for a power that has been charitably called putrid.


Only Dubas and his circle know the direction the Penguins hope to take in the immediate future. They seemed to punt this season by not making hockey trades, moving underperforming players, or in any way shaking up a team that has figuratively lived on life support all season.

The NHL trade deadline came and went, and only Jake Guentzel, Chad Ruhwedel, and Magnus Hellberg had new addresses.

The themes in the postgame analysis differed little from November to March.

Sullivan indirectly called out young defenseman P.O Joseph Tuesday night when he circled the first power-play goal as a prime example of not defending hard enough or defending well.

The criticism was fully justified, as Joseph defended a net-front player only with a raised stick.

Yet unscathed has been Ryan Graves, who has moved between all three pairings without success. Tuesday, the Devils victimized Graves beyond the reach of any exorcism. His spot in the lineup has remained safe.

Can Sullivan grab the reigns of the team and organization that he has molded for nearly a decade? He remains one of the best Xs and Os coaches in the league, as told by his peers and bosses. He remains one of the most capable coaches in the NHL.

Dubas must ask and decide if Sullivan can raise the bar for all involved.

However, like his players, changes are needed, and hard questions must be answered if Sullivan’s tenure is to continue, or this mess will only get worse.