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Penguins Blog: Polarized Reaction to Mike Sullivan Critique



Coach Mike Sullivan Pittsburgh Penguins

It was not an easy column to write, threading the needle between two sides of a polarizing issue but trying to bring some insight into a situation that is only a situation in the fanbase. Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is under fire from a significant portion of the fanbase, even as president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has adroitly cooled the flames many want burning beneath Sullivan’s seat.

And I tried to bring a balanced perspective. What I’ve heard, what I see, and what I think will happen in the future.

There can be little doubt a coach and team are struggling when you witness a few games like the end of the western trip and the 6-0 drubbing by the Washington Capitals. Dispirited, dejected, hopeless … the adjectives were endless, and yet we still seemingly ran out of nice ways to say the Penguins played as if they didn’t want to be there.

If a head coach didn’t come under fire for a stretch like that, the fanbase has either elevated a coach to immortal status or isn’t paying attention.

Predictably, the reaction to PHN’s Wednesday column putting forth questions and criteria by which Sullivan should be judged was polarized, but the reaction was plentiful. Some read into it what they wanted to hear.

“Hallelujah! Finally. You finally said it. The coach is responsible for the performance of the team.
Torts would definitely be getting more from this roster. Guys should get nachos until they wake up. Sully doesn’t hold players accountable. It isn’t a coincidence that former Pens play well for other coaches. His system stinks. He doesn’t motivate. He has lost this team. No playoff wins in 6 years. CAN HIM!” — commented Pete.

Well, actually, I didn’t write that. Didn’t inply that. And I think much of that is wildly exaggerated, if not wrong.

To reiterate, I did not call for Sullivan to be fired. I did lay out a set of standards by which Sullivan should be judged and internal questions he should face.

There’s a good bit of revisionist history on the young player narrative. Young players who had the talent to stick around, such as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry, Marcus Pettersson, Teddy Blueger, John Marino, and Drew O’Connor, did.

When the guys are ready to stick, they stick. See also: Valtteri Puustinen.

Other players were given a real chance. Sam Lafferty. Daniel Sprong. Alex Nylander. Yes, Nylander has had some early success with Columbus, but good gosh, how many teams appear on the back of each of their hockey cards?

Also, Sprong was traded for Pettersson. Not a bad deal, eh?

One of the few players I felt Sullivan has restriced was P.O Joseph. There are moments when Joseph gets soft, like the power play goal by New Jersey on Tuesday, but he doesn’t strike me as a human who needs a hard kick in the pants. Otherwise, the “Sullivan hates young players” stuff is tripe that I’ll puncture every time.

Of course, not everyone is dumping the blame on Sullivan’s doorstep.

“HCMS should be given a medal for trying to coach this team. As usual, the typical Pittsburgh response is to fire the coach. They have been playing like crap. What NHL coach is going to do any better? Let’s fire half the team, retool in the summer, and then see how Mike Sullivan handles the influx of new players.” — Chalkdust.

I agree it’s nearly impossible to keep this group of irresponsible, lax, or otherwise soft defensive players engaged in the defensive zone.

I believe the team was put together based on the math that showed the good of bunches of scoring chances and puck possession would outweigh the dump truck of bad.


This is why advanced metrics should be the second tool used in the evaluation and roster construction behind old-fashioned hockey sense and eyeballs.

I hate to bring it up, but this column wrote back in August that the Penguins would be a sketchy defensive team, and much would rely on Ryan Graves and Lars Eller to bring the defensive responsibility. However, the roster shortcomings have kept Eller playing with different players who may or may not defend well.

Sullivan recently joked that Eller leads the league in linemates.

Graves’s struggles are an issue worthy of lengthy analysis. Much rests on the players and the GM.

Random, that first sentence dovetails perfectly with Dubas’s comments on his radio show last week, “If you don’t have Sully, you’re looking for Sully.”

Here’s a final thought that has only occurred to me after writing the lengthy examination Wednesday and from pondering several responses like this. What if Sullivan is renewed with a lot of new faces and a chance to mold a Penguins team? Would he make fewer concessions for star players with more newbies and younger players in primary roles?

The longest-tenured coach in the NHL, Jon Cooper, has lasted 13 years in Tampa Bay. Tampa has not made the playoffs in every season and has fought to make the postseason in a few others.

Only four players remain from Tampa Bay’s 2016-17 season. Until Dubas traded Jake Guentzel and Chad Ruhwedel, the Penguins had seven from the 2016-17 season.

Tampa Bay has overturned part of its core roster, too. They parted with players like Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Tyler Johnson. They appear ready to part with Steve Stamkos, too. Conversely, until the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins had 11 players who had been with Sullivan for four or more seasons. That’s more than 50% of the nightly roster (In those 11, we’re counting Drew O’Connor, who played 10 games, and Joseph, who played 17. Even Nine players is a substantial number).

So, unless you believe Dubas is posturing or trying to avoid a media circus by confidently affirming Sullivan, he likely will be the coach of the Penguins next season. You’re certainly free to cancel your tickets, raise hell on social media, and otherwise pound the carpet and hold your breath.

However, the questions we put forth will be asked, examined and pulling on a few threads might yield change, in one way or another. Missing the playoffs in two consecutive seasons demands nothing less than significant change.