This week is the four year anniversary of the Pittsburgh Penguins marriage to head coach Mike Sullivan. Four years ago, the Penguins players were near rock bottom as reports circulated of Sidney Crosby’s unhappiness with the organization and even owner Mario Lemieux, the players squabbled amongst themselves and a promising summer which began with the acquisition of Phil Kessel had turned into a miserable autumn.
The Penguins promptly celebrated their liberation from former head coach Mike Johnston’s restraining 1-3-1 counterattack system by playing wild, firewagon hockey and losing their first four games under Sullivan.
Sullivan began to mold that team with a commanding presence in the locker room and on the bench. The wild-child Penguins which were prone to temper tantrums and sulking became the “just play” Penguins that marched through adversity.
Two Stanley Cups later, the Penguins team was again ready to do its own thing regardless of the head coach’s direction. Sullivan preached and pushed towards an identity but a mule with tired legs and a full belly is more likely to kick than follow.
This summer, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and Sullivan put a stop to the trend. And despite what should be an insurmountable amount of injuries, the Penguins are 19-10-4 and in a playoff position.
Rutherford put malleable players in place and Sullivan has again put his stamp on the team.
“I think it’s a lot of both (of us). We’re trying to acquire players who can play to the identity that we’re trying to establish here,” Sullivan responded to PHN over the weekend. “And I think one of my main responsibilities as a head coach is to try to steer that identity and make sure, to a man, everyone understands what their role is and what their contribution is to that identity.”
Like Butch and Sundance, Rutherford and Sullivan have worked in tandem on resuscitating the Penguins who looked old, tired, and disengaged last season. Approaching the halfway point this season, the Penguins role players have become the stars, and that is by design. The Penguins moved away from the traditional Penguins model of stacking offensive talent and moved towards honest, responsible hockey.
Bryan Rust and Brandon Tanev have lit the Penguins fire. Evgeni Malkin has carried the Penguins in Sidney Crosby’s injury absence. Crosby also carried the Penguins in Malkin’s injury absence. Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger are fast and tenacious forwards who can carry different responsibilities on different nights.
“We talk about it a lot as a team. We have a lot of discussions with players, one-on-one, about their respective roles and what the expectations are in order for them to contribute the way we need them to contribute to help us play to that identity,” Sullivan said.
Into year four of the Sullivan and Rutherford relationship is starkly different than the previous GM and coach who were locked at the hip. After winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, then-GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma became inseparable. By the fourth year of Bylsma and Shero, the team stacked regular-season wins and playoff losses including a 2012 Round One implosion against a lesser Philadelphia team, an embarrassing Eastern Conference Final sweep by the Boston Bruins and a squandered 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in 2014.
Despite Stanley Cup worthy talent, the Penguins identity and culture were broken after those four years.
The Pittsburgh Penguins 2019 acquisitions point a large neon arrow towards the remaking and rethinking of the Penguins culture. Rutherford has handed Sullivan players who fit what Sullivan needs; young, fast, aggressive and hard-working, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the eye of the storm the Penguins hope to create.
The average NHL coach lasts a little bit less than four years. Instead, the Penguins are finally getting back to Mike Sullivan’s game, and the coach again has a firm grip on the team. And everything which was old is new again.