Mike Sullivan isn’t one the Pittsburgh Penguins problems. Moving forward, he is part of the long term solution. The one, two or three players who do not want to join the team concept are part of the problem and Penguins GM Jim Rutherford must move them along in favor of players who will.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned in the Pittsburgh Penguins Round One sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders is not that a specific structure or system is superior but to covet a team’s ability to believe and implement a structure which fits their personnel.
Identity, buy-in, and execution can beat talent. Remember that.
When some ask how losing talented players can improve the Penguins, remember the hard lessons of Round One. It’s not always the best players, it is the right players.
Without a couple of their star players for most of March, the Penguins played a hard, coordinated game under Sullivan and won games.
With all of their star players back in the lineup in April, the Penguins played an individual, mistake-prone game and lost. The Pittsburgh Penguins had chances and the ability to beat New York but they lacked consistency and execution. Mistakes piled up as players tried to do their own thing instead of the team thing.
“I don’t have an answer for it. The reality is we win as a group, and we lose a group and we’re all a part of it. We’ve all got to take responsibility. It’s disappointing,” said Sullivan regarding his team’s March to April disparity. “We had high expectations of this team. We believe we have good players, and we have the potential to be a good team, and we obviously did not play well enough to win.”
There is only one player who should get a say in Mike Sullivan’s future behind the Penguins bench: Sidney Crosby.
Everyone else must either buy into the system and team concept or be shown the door. It really is that simple. The Penguins success in March proved there are far more players who adopted and participated in Sullivan’s system than did not. And it should have proved to everyone the concept of addition by subtraction, even when that subtraction is incredibly talented.
A simple eye test tells you the couple or few players who did not. And yes, those players make a lot of money and scored a lot of points but as New York proved, complete teams can beat talent. If the Penguins want a last gasp to this dynasty, they must become a team again.
Side note: Evgeni Malkin is NOT going anywhere unless he demands it. Note Malkin’s exemplary play in 2017-18 with linear players Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist which nearly earned Malkin the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. Malkin is a difficult player but one who is swayed by those around him.
Surround Malkin players who eat and sleep the system, and Malkin will play the system, too.
Don’t subscribe to the old cliche that hockey coaches only last four, maybe five seasons. If Sullivan lost the room and the players in question were young cornerstones, it would be different. However, the Penguins players proved on-ice changes were necessary and Sullivan should win any either-or battles.
Barry Trotz didn’t outcoach Mike Sullivan in Round One. Trotz’ troops stuck to his plan while Penguins defensemen pinched at bad times, forwards didn’t cover their responsibilities or didn’t get the puck to the open ice when it was most required. The Penguins team was required to fight for each other and fight to the net for opportunity or an extra shot.
Some did. Some didn’t.
And all of the power play points in the world and all of the regular season goals do not equal the output of playing the team game in a seven-game series.
Sullivan told his team early in the season the new NHL game would require heavy low play as a required component. He was absolutely correct. Players have told PHN they believe Sullivan to be a good Xs and Os coach. In 2017, Penguins center Matt Cullen called him the best. Sullivan is also adept at tactical and in-game adjustments.
But those things are difficult to spot when key players ignore them in a default setting to an old style of play.
The Penguins owe it to themselves and Mike Sullivan to dress a team which will execute to the best of their ability instead of believing the system prevents their best. Sullivan is part of the solution, as long as the rest of the room and Sidney Crosby believes it.