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Is Mike Sullivan the Right Coach to Lead This Team?



Coach Mike Sullivan Pittsburgh Penguins

Twenty-two men have coached the Pittsburgh Penguins since they entered the National Hockey League in 1967.

Mike Sullivan has won more games than any of the others.

Four men — two of them absolute legends — have led this team to Stanley Cups.

Mike Sullivan is the only one to do it twice.

Clearly, Sullivan has left an indelible mark on the franchise since he replaced Mike Johnston — remember him? — as coach in mid-December, 2015.

And now, Kyle Dubas, the Penguins’ president of hockey operations and general manager, has to decide whether to give Sullivan another unique niche in team annals by making him its first coach to lose his position before his contract even starts.

In 2022, Sullivan accepted a three-year deal believed to be worth $5.5 million annually that is scheduled to take effect after this season.

The question is not whether Sullivan is a good coach — he’s widely regarded as one of the best in the NHL — but whether he is the right coach for this team, at this time.

Dubas, it must be noted, has been nothing but ultra-supportive of Sullivan since he began overseeing the franchise’s on-ice operation nearly a year ago. Any public mention of Sullivan is sure to include lavish praise and expressions of respect for his work.

(It also merits mention that Dubas rarely speaks publicly and limits his professional interactions with members of the print media — the people who, in general, would be most likely to press him on matters he might not care to discuss — to an occasional press conference.)

Sullivan also seems to be held in particularly high regard by the decision-makers at Fenway Sports Group, and having the backing of ownership can only be a plus when someone’s future is being assessed.

None of that is surprising, given the obvious breadth and depth of Sullivan’s coaching acumen, and the things he has accomplished since then-GM Jim Rutherford promoted him from the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre.

At the same time, he has become a polarizing figure among the Penguins’ fan base. Detractors, as well as supporters, abound.

Critics — and there is a growing number of them — point out that the Penguins not only have missed the playoffs for two years in a row, but have not won a series since 2018, despite having a lineup built around the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel, among others.

While the opinions of people outside the organization are not — and should not be — decisive when critical personnel decisions are being contemplated, neither is it good business to simply ignore the feelings of those whose sponsorship and season-ticket dollars help to keep the operation running.

In the closing weeks of this season, the Penguins showed that they still can respond to Sullivan’s coaching. The 8-1-3 run they’ll take into their regular-season finale on Long Island Wednesday night reflects not only the on-ice instruction they’ve received, but the preparation they were given.

Of course, that late-season surge makes it fair to ask why it took so long for Sullivan’s players to respond that way.

Although it was fair to anticipate that, after the significant roster churn last summer, some time would be needed for the newcomers to get comfortable with their new teammates and systems, that doesn’t explain why the Penguins have been prone to squandering leads, especially late in games, and to regularly having costly, momentum-killing letdowns after scoring a goal for most of this season.

While the onus for things like those absolutely falls on the players, part of a coach’s job description is to keep the guys he’s sending over the boards focused and motivated. Far too often in 2023-24, the Penguins did not appear to be.

For whatever reason, coaches in the NHL tend to have roughly the same shelf life as raw milk. Sullivan has lasted much longer than most — Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper is the only one who’s been in his current position longer than Sullivan — but when Dubas is charting the franchise’s future course, one of many issues he’ll have to consider is whether a new voice is needed in the locker room.

Among other things, he’ll have to think about whether he could bring in someone who would be more effective at consistently bringing out the best in his personnel than Sullivan was this season.

Making a change solely for the sake of making a change would be foolish and counterproductive. At best.

At the same time, if Dubas’ offseason plans call for major roster upheaval, that might be an opportune time to also bring in a coach with a fresh message and methods and perspective.

There’s no question Mike Sullivan has earned a prominent place in franchise history. Whether he’s earned the opportunity to add to what he has achieved — and to do it under a contract that hasn’t kicked in yet — is one of the most critical determinations Dubas will make in the coming weeks and months.