There was a disconnect within the Pittsburgh Penguins organization last season. As former GM Ron Hextall’s moves crumbled, one by one, the Penguins’ lineup increasingly became a frustrated, listless squad that couldn’t find their rhythm for more than short spurts.
They missed the playoffs. Hextall, assistant GM Chris Pryor, and president of hockey operations Brian Burke paid the price with their jobs.
“We just didn’t earn it,” was captain Sidney Crosby’s evaluation of missing the playoffs.
However, the purge at the top of the organization probably isn’t done as director of amateur scouting Nick Pryor and director of professional scouting Kerry Huffman will most likely follow the departed management out the door as soon as FSG names a new GM.
There could also be a nearly complete purge of the scouting staff, as most scouts were hired by Hextall and had deep ties to the former GM.
Yet, the existing and pending dismissals haven’t quelled the blood lust within the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase. Many have fixated on the status of coach Mike Sullivan.
With a five-year extension in effect, Sullivan would seem to be part of the package for a new GM, much like he was in 2021 when Hextall and Burke were hired. However, the vague wording by FSG co-head Dave Beeston at the post-Hextall press conference still hangs in the air. His yes-no answer, in fact, answered little.
“I think the answer to that is we think Mike Sullivan is one of the best coaches in the NHL. He was extended last season, and then once we bring in a new hockey operations leader, he or she will be responsible for evaluating the coaching staff,” said Beeston on April 14. “And we think Mike is terrific.”
There are many demanding a clean sweep. From president to coach, all swept clean to make way for a new regime, coaches, and presumably a new philosophy.
**And here’s where emotion collides with logic.
If the GM failed to deliver competent players capable of adequately plugging into the Penguins’ philosophy and system, is that on the coach?
Sullivan was left with an impossible choice. Oversimplifying slightly, Sullivan faced the decision to amend the system, which was designed to perfectly fit the top of his lineup in order to accommodate the “other half” of the roster, or he had to play to the team’s strengths at the top and hope for the best.
Sullivan brake-checked this reporter in mid-March when I posed a question about changing styles or systems to deal with the lost leads. The answer began with, “Well, we do watch film in the offseason to create a system…”
It was a fair response, just as the question was fair in the pursuit of answers about why the team let leads slip through their fingers like sands through the hourglass.
While many will focus on the nine squandered third period leads, the equally troubling stat was 22 lost leads at any point in the game. Only the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks lost more.
One of the biggest fan complaints was Sullivan’s use of Jeff Carter’s line after opposing goals. It sounds like a legit criticism until you examine the situation. Since most goals came from the top two lines, the options were Teddy Blueger’s increasingly ineffective line or Carter’s trio.
**But here is where the emotion to sweep clean has grounding, and Sullivan’s seat should be at least a little warm.
I’ve spent a couple of weeks observing coach Bruce Cassidy and the Vegas Golden Knights up close. The experience, so close to covering a complete Penguins season, only further amplifies what a top-shelf coach means to a team.
Cassidy outcoached Edmonton’s Jay Woodcroft in Game 1, and his plan for Connor McDavid at 5v5 was the difference (no one has figured out how to stop the Edmonton power play).
No, Sullivan didn’t have the depth or horses to defend that the Vegas Golden Knights have. For context, Teddy Blueger was traded to Vegas at the NHL trade deadline, but he is the 14th or so forward for Vegas. On a good team, he’s merely depth.
But Cassidy’s defensive zone coverage system is significantly simpler than Sullivan’s scheme. The Penguins allow defensemen to roam the defensive zone, sometimes both going below the goal line or vacating the front, putting pressure on the forwards to read the situation and fill open the space.
The Golden Knights keep defensemen near the net and a forward in the middle to cut off cross-ice passes. They’ll give opponents the puck around the perimeter all day but protect the house. The forwards will attack the walls, and the team is able to transition to the rush from higher in the zone.
Vegas has been effective on the rush because of that.
In years past, the Penguins had the puck about 60% of the time (or more), and their speed and depth advantages lessened their time in the defensive zone. Without those advantages this season, the Penguins were forced to defend more often, more players had to make more reads, and more players made mistakes.
Perhaps a new GM will deliver players who can again play the dynamic style Sullivan has devised for dynamic players.
Or perhaps a new GM will have different views and want to go in a different direction, and Sullivan will have to adapt, or he’ll not be the right coach for the team.
There were other issues with Sullivan’s performance in 2022-23. He seemed deferential to the star players on the power play when the unit struggled to produce goals or even momentum so often. The Penguins’ power play finished 14th, but the eye tests and feel didn’t agree with anything that high.
The above are questions any new GM will ask Sullivan to discuss as a matter of accountability.
And after missing the playoffs, will the team buy into Sullivan next season? That’s a significant question; it can become full re-commitment, or players can check out.
Always aware of the changing game, the unique thing about Sullivan is the ever-adapting systems and philosophy he’s willing to employ. It’s not true that Sullivan is stuck in the past, though it’s true many of his players were not fitted to his system.
Much like Beeston’s answer, with change comes uncertainty. Perhaps Sullivan won’t be the right coach. Perhaps players will begin to tune him out after the failure. Still, for now, it’s silliness to toss the coach after a bad year when the most significant factor in the failure was the universally agreed poor roster construction and the unexpected or rapid deterioration of some of the players.
Silliness, at least until conversations begin with a new GM or we see how the team responds.