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Molinari: Are Sullivan’s Players Tuning Him Out?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin, Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan is, by almost any metric, the most successful coach in Pittsburgh Penguins history.

He is the only one to win multiple Stanley Cups — Bob Johnson, Scotty Bowman and Dan Bylsma had one each — and has the most victories during the regular season (321) and playoffs (44) of anyone who has run this franchise’s bench.

He also has coached more regular-season games (556) than anyone who has held that position here.

Tougher to quantify, but perhaps even easier to argue, is that he is the best coach the Penguins ever have had, based strictly on the coaches’ performance here.

His only real competition for that distinction is Johnson, who not only won the Penguins’ first Cup in his only season as coach, but completely changed the culture and mentality of the entire organization in the process.

The Penguins had not won so much as a division championship (or advanced beyond Round 2 of the playoffs) before Johnson arrived in the summer of 1990. His relentless, infectious optimism had an impact that endured long after his death little more than a year later.

Things weren’t nearly as dire when Sullivan was brought in from the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre to replace Mike Johnston in December, 2015, but the team looked to be in very real danger of wasting the prime years of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who headlined the revival of the franchise nearly a decade earlier.

Disappointing playoff performances had become the norm, and the Penguins were getting to be known more for underachieving than for anything they actually accomplished.

Sullivan changed that, and six months later, the Penguins had their fourth Cup. A year later, they added a fifth.

They defeated Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs in 2018, but lost to Washington in Round 2.

The Penguins weren’t happy about that, obviously, but the reality is that the Capitals were a good team — they went on to win that franchise’s only Cup — and the Penguins were feeling the physical and mental effects of their long playoff runs the previous two springs.

That series could have — maybe, should have — been an unfortunate hiccup, but the Penguins haven’t won a round since then.

Now, with 33 games left in the regular season, they are in real danger of not even participating in the 2023 playoffs.

And it’s not because Sullivan has forgotten how to coach.

Indeed, his ability is widely recognized in the hockey universe; remember, Sullivan was selected to coach Team USA in the 2022 Olympics, had the NHL participated.

That doesn’t mean he is infallible. Like any coach, his personnel and tactical decisions are fair game for critiques by the press and public, and more than a few of them have been second-guessed.

What really matters, though, is not how Sullivan’s moves are viewed outside the organization, but how his words are received inside the locker room.

Based on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ numerous defensive lapses and their frequent failure to efficiently execute the details of their assignments this season, it seems that a lot of those words are being ignored. Or, at best, not absorbed.

If his players are tuning out Sullivan — at this point, the onus is on them to prove that isn’t the case — perhaps the only real surprise is that it’s taken this long.

For whatever reason, NHL coaches tend to have a shelf life akin to that of raw milk. If one holds onto his position for more than three seasons, it’s a noteworthy achievement, and Sullivan has been on the job for more than seven years.

There’s no reason to think Sullivan’s position is in immediate jeopardy (although missing the playoffs could change a lot of things for a lot of people), but if/when he is replaced, be prepared for the players to solemnly intone about what a great coach and guy he is and how they, not he, are responsible for the team’s failures, etc.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s repeated almost every time an NHL coach gets fired.

There is one easy, obvious way to avoid all of that pseudo-drama: Sullivan’s players could do their jobs the way they have been instructed, and do it shift-in and shift-out. They could play like extending the franchise’s 16-season playoff streak — and preserving Sullivan’s job — genuinely matters to them.

This is not, as currently constituted, a Stanley Cup-caliber team, and probably can’t be transformed into one.

But neither is it one that should be embarrassed by a bottom-feeding San Jose club, the way the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a 6-4 loss on home ice Saturday, or one that squanders a 4-0 lead at home against Detroit, as they did Dec. 28.

Unless, of course, the players have decided that the most accomplished coach this franchise has had isn’t good enough for them anymore.