Mike Sullivan hasn’t played an NHL game since 2002, but there he was Tuesday, deflecting as deftly as if he were still in front of a net. The topic for the Pittsburgh Penguins coach was the job he has done in this season of incredible injury numbers.
Sullivan has been getting recognition – even talk of being the coach of the year — for not just holding the club together, but also overseeing a group that’s flourishing.
Two games from the midpoint of the season, the Penguins are second in the Metropolitan Division, third in the Eastern Conference with 52 points in spite of the 156 man-games lost – and counting.
In 2016 and 2017, Sullivan guided the Penguins through four grinding rounds of the playoffs to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. PHN asked him Tuesday whether that or dealing with the adversity of this season was a tougher challenge.
Cut to the deflection talk.
“I just think it’s part of what you sign up for when you’re a coach in this league,” Sullivan said. “There are challenges every year. This is a hard league. It’s hard to win. There’s a lot of good teams. There’s a lot of good coaches. There’s a lot of good managers. And so that’s what we all sign up for. That’s what we love about our jobs.
“I can only speak for myself, but I’m fortunately surrounded with some really good coaches that help me and us make the best decisions that we can for the team. But once again, I’ve always been a believer that this is a players’ game. The players are the guys that get it done. And this group of players here deserves a lot of credit to this point.”
On the day that team captain Sidney Crosby rejoined practice Tuesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex – albeit in a no-contact capacity and apparently only because of a heavy ice schedule there – winger, leading scorer and All-Star winger Jake Guentzel had shoulder surgery that will sideline him four to six months.
Guentzel and Crosby are two of the four players who have needed surgery.
The Penguins have played less than one full game with a full, healthy lineup – Nov. 2 against Edmonton, when Evgeni Malkin returned from injury but Patric Hornqvist left in the third period because of an injury.
So Sullivan and his staff have done a lot of tap dancing, figuring out who is available, who isn’t, what the line combinations and defensive pairings should be, etc. He also has convinced the players to be responsible and buy in to a system that has worked.
Crosby has noticed.
“We’re well prepared,” Crosby said. “You can see the way that we’re playing. We’re disciplined in the way we play. Everyone’s on the same page. A lot of that comes from the coaching staff. It comes from the players to buy in, but I think the coaches are the ones who set the tone for that. He’s definitely done a great job, especially given all the injuries.”
Sullivan has been consistently effusive when talking about his players and the way they have dealt with so many injuries this season. He did it again Tuesday when he deflected the credit to his players. It also happened as recently as postgame Monday.
“I love the resilience of the group,” Sullivan said after the 5-2 win over Ottawa. “I just think we’ve become a team here. Guys have really rallied around some of the adversity that has hit this club in the first half of the season. And I just can’t say enough about the players. They’re working together. They’re playing hard for one another. They’re competing out there. Some nights it’s not pretty, but we find ways. I think it’s a sign of a good hockey team.
“I give our players a lot of credit. It starts with our leadership group, with our veteran guys. They’ve done a terrific job. But we’ve got a real good feeling around the team right now. There’s a great attitude. You can sense it in the (locker) room. We believe in one another. We believe that if we play the game together, when we play the style of play that plays to our strengths, we can win on any given night against any team, regardless of who’s in our lineup.”
With so many players hurt, one of the few constants has been Sullivan and his staff. People are noticing.
At around the same time Sullivan was praising his players – again – Monday night, Ottawa Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki was down the hall in the visiting locker room of PPG Paints Arena telling reporters this about the Penguins:
“As objectively as I can look at it, probably the best coached team in the NHL. They look flashy sometimes because you see (the Evgeni Malkins) and (Sidney Crosbys) out there, but you see Guentzel and (Bryan) Rust and these guys flying around. But they get those chances because their fundamentals are so solid. They put pucks behind (the defense). Their gaps are great. They just look really responsible. They kind of wear you down, and you have breakdowns, and it turns into these fancy, Grade A (chances).”
Earlier this month, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire joined a cast calling for Sullivan to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
As a means of comparison across the sports spectrum, earlier this NFL season there was a lot of praise for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and some calls for him as a coach of the year candidate for his work after sure Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in Week 2.
With what appears no chance of the Penguins dressing a full lineup the rest of the season, Sullivan is getting the same kind of attention.