In the end, there was nothing else Mike Sullivan could have done for his Pittsburgh Penguins team. Sometimes the opponent has the right game plan, sometimes the puck bounces the wrong way, and sometimes the playdough gets stale and is too hard to mold. The quick and decisive end to the Penguins season is already bringing serious and warranted questions.
Against the advice of the internet and social media, Sullivan did several significant things well throughout the season which altered the Penguins trajectory and there were a few things which left the door open to second-guessing.
Would any changes have brought the Penguins together as a team, which is something GM Jim Rutherford said didn’t happen this season? To the Penguins discredit and Sullivan’s defense, the answer is likely no; at least not anything within the normal bounds of head coach duties which wouldn’t otherwise risk losing the team.
The Penguins were rarely able to roll four lines which performed with consistency. Most often there was a dead spot in the lineup which put the Penguins on their heels and in the defensive zone. And so Sullivan juggled lines, and juggled..and juggled searching for elusive balance.
5 Things Sullivan Got Right (In no particular order)
Given the number of scoring chances and puck possession generated by the duo (Dominik Simon was a frequent and significant contributor, too), they should have posted huge numbers.
Hornqvist admitted frustration held him back in the second half of the season. Had he buried more chances, both and Bjugstad would have posted very good numbers. Sullivan was correct to stick with the line (and wrong to break them up for the first few games of Round One).
Subset: moving Jared McCann to LW and Bjugstad back to center is another thing Sullivan got right.
2. Emphasis on Playing Heavy and Down Low; the Simple Game
This is the most important and potentially organization changing decision. Sullivan recognized the direction of the NHL and what the Penguins needed to do to compete. When everyone becomes fast, what then? Very early on, Sullivan correctly identified the push towards a simple game which required more battling for space since it couldn’t as easily be created with speed.
Sullivan catchphrases which echoed through postgame comments: “Hanging onto pucks,” “defensive conscious,” “play the right way,” and “battle zones.”
The game essentially merged the LA Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Pittsburgh Penguins styles into the new game and Sullivan was ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, his team didn’t enjoy it so much. There was resistance and lack of execution to the change for most of the season but he didn’t waver or give up. The Feb. 1 acquisition of Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad gave the Penguins a fighting chance.
Without the adoption of the simple game over the final seven weeks, the Penguins may have avoided the embarrassing Round One sweep by missing the playoffs instead.
3. Defensive Pairings
In the end, Sullivan found his pairings. It took a lot of experimenting and some bravery. There were some pairs which were immediately awful (Maatta-Oleksiak), and some which surprisingly clicked immediately (Pettersson-Gudbranson).
Rutherford has taken a beating from the internet for saying his defense is the best since his arrival, but the unemotional truth is he’s not far off base. The 2016 defense was very good with Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and eventually Justin Schultz on the right side and Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Olli Maatta on the left. The 2016 crew was a little better (in my opinion) for their moment, but a case can be made that 2019 brought more balance and depth. Don’t forget, in 2016 the Penguins were protecting Schultz who had not yet had his breakout moment.
And spare me the Jack Johnson hate which has reemerged from under the rock and is gaining steam as folks cherry pick GIFS (which often incorrectly scapegoats Johnson) or make bold declarations. The Game One difference without Johnson in the lineup as New York owned the Penguins crease and controlled the low zone was enough for Penguins coaches to make an immediate change from Olli Maatta back to Johnson.
Might changes come to the Penguins blue line for next season? Yes, but for the playdough available to Sullivan this season, he got it right.
The Penguins found three pairs with a stay-at-home presence, puck movement, and physicality which can carry into next season. It was the offensive defensemen who made the mistakes against New York in Round One which created the biggest goals against, not the defensive defensemen. Don’t forget that little detail.
The Penguins can work on offensive defensemen and their decision making, and work on forwards remembering the defensive zone.
4. Dominik Simon (vs. Daniel Sprong)
Simon was a lightning rod for fan criticism all season. In the early going, it was because he displaced the great and powerful Daniel Sprong. As the season progressed, the criticism changed to his lack of goal scoring.
Sullivan’s deployment of Simon in the top six is debatable. For short periods, it made great sense because Simon increased the scoring chances for his linemates, and additional opportunities for Sidney Crosby are quite valuable. That point should be inarguable. Simon spiked the scoring chances of every center he played beside. In some cases like Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, the difference was extreme and exceeded a 20 percentage point spike.
Frustration with Simon’s numbers shouldn’t overshadow the chances his linemates received from his work and their increased production. In full concession, Sullivan probably used Simon too often on the top line. At some point, the top line RW also has to score.
Sprong scored 14 goals in Anaheim but only five assists in 47 games. His ice time dropped significantly in the second half of the season. Sprong has a chance to become an NHL player, but he has more work to do to avoid the “Brandon Pirri” career path.
5. Pushing Matt Murray
Not many coaches would have threatened their franchise goaltender with pine time and followed through. Sullivan did for several stretches. He pushed Matt Murray by starting Casey DeSmith for three straight games on two occasions and did not give Murray his net back when Murray returned from injury in December.
That challenge may have righted Murray’s season as much as any technical adjustment. And when Murray was ready, Sullivan subtly awarded him the crease without an official announcement. Sullivan played the break on the green well with this one.
Monday–we’ll detail the things Sullivan got wrong. As always, share and comment below. Happy Easter and Passover.