It’s not 1985, and NHL coaches are no longer babysitters who use intermissions for a cigarette break while their star players decide how to play the next period. No longer do NHL coaches toss a bucket of pucks on the ice for the morning skate and return to their office. It’s nearly 2019, and NHL coaches are more important than they’ve ever been. And Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is as good as there is.
When things don’t go well, everyone is smart. Changes are easy to suggest. Jobs are easy to call for. But the reality of those calling for Mike Sullivan’s job is no reality at all. It’s emotional reaction wrapped in a bit of silliness.
It’s understandable to be upset or anxious with the Penguins. They were supposed to have one or two more great runs left in them. Another moment in the sun has turned into a search for answers. And the gut reaction answer is always to look to the coach.
At this point in a column, quotes and locker room reaction would be inserted. However, in this instance, there won’t be supporting quotes from players or the organization. Because it would be impossible to even ask the question and maintain credibility. Even Sidney Crosby, who is more generous with his time and with bad questions than anyone in the league, might flash a derisive side eye before giving a polite answer.
But it was Matt Cullen who told PHN in 2017, “(Sullivan) is probably the best X’s and O’s coach I’ve been around.”
Before the inexplicable performance in Chicago, the Penguins were 6-2-2 in their last 10. And perhaps Penguins fans who firmly believe a new head coach would right the ship should ask Chicago about firing a good coach. The Chicago Blackhawks were 3-12-2 since firing Joel Quenneville. Now, they’re a whopping 4-12-2.
You may also ask Los Angeles and St. Louis how their “Fire the head coach!” strategy worked out.
It is with some irony, the most derided coaching change–Ken Hitchcock in Edmonton–has been the most successful. Hitchcock has worked in the land just south of the Arctic Circle because he’s also a very good coach and brought a new, appropriate style of play to the team. The defensive stalwart coach is preaching Corsi hockey. My how times change.
The Penguins have aging, mistake-prone players who are still capable of extraordinary things but those mistakes are growing. Not Quenneville or Scotty Bowman or Al Abour could fix those problems.
The Penguins issues have been a carousel of old and new issues, but rarely the same thing twice–because the coaches have done a good job of adjusting. Sullivan, in his fourth season with the Penguins, has been more like a street performer racing to keep the plates spinning, or if you prefer, the little Dutch boy plugging his fingers in the leaky wall.
Perhaps Sullivan should set up tables in the locker room just to flip them?
The Penguins PK hit a rough patch. Fixed. The PK is now in the top-10.
Penguins franchise goaltender struggled and cost the Penguins games. Sullivan had the courage to put in a 27-year-old backup who only had 14 games of NHL experience. The move worked. Casey DeSmith is 9-5-4.
Many of those who may argue, “bring in a new voice,” are still stewing over Daniel Sprong, yet rarely credit the coach for inserting inexperienced players like DeSmith, Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese, and Juuso Riikola.
Would a new coach be able to get Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to play their best games every night? Would God him (or her)self be able to so? Perhaps some should remember the Dan Bylsma era and Mike Johnston era, or the end of the Michael Therrien era.
The Penguins coaches are tactically on top of their game with in-game adjustments and fitting their approach to the personnel. The breakouts have evolved this season. The scheme and offensive approaches have also evolved with the team.
Every head coach makes mistakes or has “his” players. Every single coach. No, I never understood the Ian Cole beef either but until Sullivan has such issues with a guy who wears No. 87, the Penguins will be fine.
The Penguins have flaws and it will a lot more fun to dissect and discuss those than it will be sifting through layers of silliness first.