When the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock Wednesday, it served as a stark reminder that even the best can fail if the situation isn’t right. Sure, there may come a day when Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has to summon Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan into a hotel room meeting to fire the Penguins coach. There may come a day when things are broken and spiraling downward, and the Penguins organization will be pushed into the time-honored tradition of finding a new coach to spark a stale team. But if you look closely, the Pittsburgh Penguins tandem of Sullivan and Rutherford have been working closely on the Penguins future and doing so with a specific strategy.
The Penguins GM has been building a team in Sullivan’s image. The Penguins are Mike Sullivan’s team, and Rutherford has made that happen.
Rutherford has been acquiring players and pushing the organizational model to fit around Sullivan. Just as the Columbus Blue Jackets did when they built a team tailor-made for head coach John Tortorella, which has stabilized and elevated the franchise which has seemingly always lacked star players, the Penguins revamp is heavy on acquiring Sullivan-style players such as Brandon Tanev, Jared McCann and re-signing players like Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust.
The Penguins are building a team and a culture in the image of their head coach. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang recently admitted to PHN that, “we got away from it for a while,” but are back to playing the gritty, speed game which was the foundation for their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017.
Babcock is unemployed (though not unpaid) today because Toronto management wanted a style of play which was not integrated into Babcock’s scheme. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas assumed the GM role in 2018. He wants a puck-possession monster that plays with skill. Babcock is a tight-checking, speed guy.
Such a schism seems unlikely in Pittsburgh. Rutherford and Sullivan are not only on the same page, but they are also writing the book together. The symbiosis was evident this week during Jim Rutherford’s Hall of Fame ceremonies.
“It’s hard for me to articulate into words what it’s meant to me personally to work with him, to become his friend. I value his friendship more than anything at this point,” Sullivan said.
Rutherford returned the favor during his Hall speech.
“I want to thank “Sully” for the masterful job he’s done in Pittsburgh but also for your friendship,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford has charted a course in which he delivers players who precisely fit the style and temperament of his head coach. The Penguins no longer have clowns or desirous players. Their locker room has become more professional and focused. On the ice, the Penguins may have the fastest, most physical team they have ever had.
Pittsburgh Penguins Culture
Rutherford could have spent millions this summer on talented players who put a lot of ink on the stat sheet, but instead, he signed Tanev to bolster the team philosophy. Rutherford could have traded more than one of his star players, but he let Sullivan meet with Evgeni Malkin and resolve the situation.
Traditionally, the Penguins culture is based on offense; skilled and talented players try to outscore the opponent. Things are different now. The Penguins play a complete game. They prize speed and physicality, which is often rolled into the phrase, “tough to play against,” but that phrase isn’t only limited to those attributes. “Tough to play against” incorporates more characteristics, but it’s also a mindset.
It’s a firm mindset that Sullivan has instilled, and Rutherford has systematically delivered players who have or are open to that mindset and game.
Despite the worst injury list in the NHL, the Penguins have earned points and played remarkably well. They have assumed the identity which the coach preaches. The team is among the leaders in scoring chance generation and suppression, and that can be traced directly to the type of players acquired and the style of play.
Toronto fired Babcock because the team wasn’t responding to the message. It happens. But the team wasn’t constructed to hear the words, either. If Sullivan and the Penguins someday part ways, it won’t be because Sullivan and Rutherford didn’t work together.