As part of our chat with Hockey Hall of Fame legend Scotty Bowman, we also discussed his take on Pittsburgh Penguins current bench boss Mike Sullivan. Bowman said in a recent chat that Sullivan was perhaps the closest coach to himself. Sullivan is working for his third Stanley Cup ring while Bowman has nine as a head coach and five more in management roles.
Bowman swiftly praised Sullivan, and without prompting, explained the Penguins oft-debated line juggling. If Bowman anticipated my questions before I asked, imagine coaching against him?
“He’s a no-nonsense guy. He has a blueprint, and he asks players to follow,” Bowman said quickly. “He’s lost players (to injury) and stayed in the hunt.”
The Penguins recent dip was costly, and the Penguins began to falter. Wednesday, GM Jim Rutherford said he felt it was directly related to the number of injuries and overusing players in more significant roles caught up to the Penguins.
It was the hand that was dealt to the Penguins, but Sullivan earned praise in the hockey world, as much or more so than in the public arena.
“He’s also ahead of the game,” Bowman praised. “He was one of the first coaches–he built a racetrack team.”
For fans who were introduced to hockey upon the Penguins most recent Stanley Cup runs, the 2016 team was transitioned from a counterattack 1-3-1, which played methodically to an aggressive, in your face forechecking demon. In the 2015-16 season, Rutherford added speed with Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, and Trevor Daley via trades. The Penguins called up players like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.
Suddenly, the Penguins were greased lightning, but that alone wasn’t enough.
“(Hockey people) were like, ‘How the hell does this team win?’ On paper, they didn’t have the talent,” Bowman said. “Speed burns. and (Sullivan) made it burn.”
For those who watched the 2016 Stanley Cup Final on the NHL Network on Wednesday night, or for those who vividly remember, the Penguins speed burned the San Jose Sharks. It was the Penguins speed, which gave Sullivan the hockey playdough to build a system based on the Penguins speed. It wasn’t just the quicker skates that allowed the Penguins to win. It was a myriad of ways that Sullivan utilized it.
The Penguins systems have varied, evolved, and Sullivan has adapted, as well. The Penguins system of 2016 in which their forecheck aggression essentially created a 2-1-2, and often the Penguins had three skaters with the blades inside the blue line. Sullivan unleashed a suffocating wrinkle against Tampa Bay in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final in which the third forward patrolled the attacking blue line like a West Virginia state trooper looking for PA speeders, while two forecheckers bedeviled the defensemen trying to find lanes.
“He’s not afraid to try things,” Bowman’s praise continued.
Sullivan’s line shuffling does mirror that of Bowman, who was renowned for swapping his lines for better matchups, especially in the playoffs. Like Scotty Bowman, Mike Sullivan creates lines with pairs and works outward. But how to create those pairs and trios is more of an art than a science.
“(Sullivan) has a feeling of the game. He knows when guys are playing above their peak,” Bowman said. “You can’t teach that. You have to know your players. That’s (hockey) IQ.”
To boil down Bowman’s next level praise, Sullivan knows when a player has that extra step and is feeling the game, or when the player isn’t and makes line changes accordingly.
Sometimes, the simple answers are the hardest to come by. Whenever we get hockey back, and Sullivan has scrambled the lines by the second period, that’s why. Sullivan saw players with the hop and some players without it.
Like Bowman, Sullivan earns his share of ruffled feathers and detractors. Some players who don’t fit or who find themselves on the wrong side of Mike Sullivan don’t last long. See, Cole, Ian. Kessel, Phil. And a few more.
As a player, Sullivan was a grinder. He wasn’t a star player, and didn’t have the skill to be, so he learned what it took to be in the NHL, Bowman explained. The tribulations of coaching have also been a great teacher.
“The ups and downs of coaching. He learned in (Vancouver as an assistant) and Boston (where Sullivan got his first head coaching job in 2003),” Bowman concluded.
Within weeks of his hire, the Pittsburgh Penguins became Mike Sullivan’s team. He took over a disheveled team and molded it. Early success helps. Playing to his team’s strengths adds buy-in. And now Rutherford stocked the Pens roster with Sullivan-type players.
Hockey coaches are often hired to be fired, but the Penguins awarded Mike Sullivan with a five-year contract last summer. Star players who became trouble or disagreeable were traded, or in the case of Evgeni Malkin, shown the light.
And it was immediately evident, the best coach that ever was thinks the Penguins are in good hands.