For seven years, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan followed John Tortorella. Sullivan served at Tortorella’s right hand for seven seasons including a few rough patches with full staff dismissals in Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and after just one tumultuous season in Vancouver.
Sullivan followed Torts for seven years and should follow Tortorella’s lead one more time.
Like Tortorella, Sullivan is a hard coach. Over the winter, he conceded to the team’s weekly TV show, “I’m not always the smoothest silk.” And he’s right. That commanding presence was the driving force behind the Pittsburgh Penguins organizational turnaround beginning in December 2015.
A nice guy didn’t and wouldn’t have gotten that job done.
Don’t forget how lost the Penguins were. Infighting at every level of the organization and between different levels had marred the past couple of years. It was assumed the Penguins window slammed shut and the 2009 Stanley Cup win was not viewed as the crowning achievement as much as it was a symbol of lost opportunity.
Tortorella transformed the game from the clutch-and-grab trap nightmare to an uptempo forecheck with his 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and Sullivan turned the NHL with the speed game in 2016.
Both coaches reemerged as head coaches in the Metro Division in the first half of the 2015-16 season. Sullivan drew the undisciplined, petulant and supremely talented Penguins while Tortorella drew the annually in flux Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sullivan brought it all together quickly, while Tortorella was beginning to remake hapless Columbus.
Tortorella clashed with top center Ryan Johansen. It got ugly and in January 2016, Columbus swapped Johansen to Nashville for emerging defenseman Seth Jones. Tortorella’s reshaping project was not easy. Columbus did not immediately take to “Torts” and there were a few hurt feelings.
But it eventually clicked. It became Tortorella’s team. The base roster which was previously labeled as plumbers, pluggers, grinders and third liners began to score. Players like Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson have become reliable contributors.
And Tortorella began to change, too.
Columbus outfitted their outspoken coach with the right players and the hard coach began to ease up. Confrontation works sometimes but other times, praise goes a long way.
“Balls as big as the building,” Tortorella gushed about defenseman Zach Werenski after Columbus lost Game 3 to the Penguins in Round One of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Columbus had just squandered a late lead and lost in overtime to trail 3-0 in the series. Werenski was injured when he was hit in the face by a shot. Blood gushed but referees didn’t blow the whistle. The Penguins tied the game on the resulting sequence, then won in overtime.
Despite the crushing defeat, Tortorella simply heaped praise on the battered defenseman who got stitches and returned to play until his eye swelled shut before overtime. Players hear about such praise from their coach and don’t forget it. It buys reams of loyalty.
Tortorella has abandoned morning skates and dialed back on video work. His binders of analysis and systems have sometimes become less than 30 minutes of film work. He is putting the game in the hands of his players in part because they have earned his trust but also because he earned their trust.
Sullivan had to go hard at his underachieving team this season. He tried to walk the line for his mentally exhausted group last season but was not going to let them slide this year. The veteran Penguins rendered a split decision; most bought into the coach, but a few didn’t.
Sullivan is a transformational coach who got most things right this season regardless of your opinion of Dominik Simon, Jack Johnson or any other outlet for disappointment. He wisely saw the game’s evolution and the Penguins necessity to adapt. His direction was spot on but there is a high probability that most of the segment of the veteran core which struggled with Sullivan’s message will return next season.
See also, Evgeni Malkin.
Another veteran in the locker room–before the season ended–joked about his summer routine to a hoard of reporters, “I won’t miss that voice.” At the time it was funny. We all chuckled, but looking back, maybe it was funny because it was too real.
There will be enough new blood in the locker room that Sullivan’s message should not be old. It will be up to Sullivan to reach his new players but also to reconnect with his established players. Sullivan should win any “either-or” situations with players but with a little more Sullivan, a little less cliche, a bit more of a connection, the next Penguins season should feature a lot more buy-in.
He doesn’t need to complement Sidney Crosby’s testicular size but more of the real Mike Sullivan and more genuine praise couldn’t hurt. Sullivan is a commanding coach whose position is justly secure. He’s a top-notch coach who changed the organization, set the current standard for the league and is tactically very good with in-game adjustments, too.
But every iron throne can become a hot seat very quickly.