Upon the announcement Tuesday of his contract extension, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan shared some insight on his longevity. It became clear pretty quickly that it is tied to the longevity of the team’s key franchise players and his relationship with them.
Which works out, because those players — centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang — similarly are tied to the Penguins for several seasons to come.
“I can’t tell you how much those guys mean to me as a head coach,” Sullivan said. “They’re the guys that have created the standard of excellence that I think all Pittsburgh fans and Pittsburgh Penguins are held accountable to. … To continue on that journey with them is the thrill of a lifetime for me. I just have so much respect for those three players.”
Sullivan’s extension, assuming he remains in place until the end of it, runs through the 2026-27 season. He was promoted from the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate in the American Hockey League in December 2015. That would be a tenure of 11 1/2 seasons.
That’s a heck of a run in the NHL, where coaching tenures tend to run on the shorter side in recent decades. Barry Trotz coached Nashville for 15 seasons beginning in 1998-99. Lindy Ruff coached Buffalo for 10 seasons beginning in 1997-98. They have been the outliers.
Crosby is signed through the 2024-25 season, Malkin through the 2025-26 season and Letang through the 2027-28 season. Those three players and Sullivan were integral parts in the Penguins’ two most recent Stanley Cup titles, 2016 and 2017.
Sullivan said that despite those three being in their mid-30s, he does not see a decline in their play.
“I believe in these guys,” Sullivan said. “I just think they’re that good, they’re that driven and they’re willing to put the work in to do what it takes. We understand how hard it is to win Stanley Cups. It’s arguably the most difficult championship to win in pro sports. So we know what we’re up against. We know the challenge in front of us. But I just believe in these guys. They’re tremendous athletes, and they have such high character. Their appetite to win and their willingness to put the work in, for me, sets them apart from any other core group of players that I’ve ever been around.”
Of course, other NHL coaches have had a strong stable of players to work with — including previous Penguins coaches with this group — but that hardly ensures a long tenure.
Sullivan outlined his philosophy.
“I just believe in being honest and candid with our players,” he said. “I think an important aspect of what we do is building relationships. … When relationships grow and develop over time, they should get stronger. When you go through adversity and challenges throughout the course of your experiences and you get on the other side of those tough times together, usually relationships get better, get stronger. I believe that’s what we’ve been able to do in Pittsburgh.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the group of players that I’ve had the privilege to coach in my time in Pittsburgh – not just the core players, but all the players that have come through our dressing room. But I think the common denominator is the core group. These guys, they set the standard. They set the bar for what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin.
“We try to build a relationship or a partnership with these guys in my time here in Pittsburgh, and we’ve been able to develop strong relationships. When you can develop good relationships with your players, you can have hard conversations. Inevitably as a head coach, if you’re doing your job, you’re going to tell players things they don’t want to hear sometimes. That’s just the nature of what we do. And the stronger your relationships are, as long as they know and they understand that you have their best interests in mind, I think those messages get through a whole lot more efficiently.”
It has worked for Sullivan, at least so far.
“It’s always been a little bit of a head-scratcher for me that there’s been this opinion that coaches have shelf lives,” he said. “I’ve never subscribed to that notion. I believe that the best coaches build relationships, and when you build the right relationships with players, and you’re able to have candid, honest conversations with them – and they know that you care – I think you can accomplish anything with a group, and I think time just makes it that much stronger.”
Diving a little deeper, Sullivan noted that it’s imperative to have everyone on the same page, and to include the players.
“It’s about selling the message, making sure that whatever it is you’re trying to sell, they’ve got to buy in,” he said. “They’ve got to take ownership for it. They have to believe to their very core that this is the game plan that’s going to give us the best chance for success. And that’s what we’ve tried to do here.
“We allow our players the opportunity to have a say. We give them the opportunity to give, and encourage their, feedback. … (The core players) have a wealth of experience. We’d be foolish not to lean on these guys and some of their thoughts and ideas.”
Sullivan’s bosses apparently believe in his formula, given their vote of confidence by means of the contract extension.
He, likewise, loves his fit with the franchise.
“It’s hard for me to articulate what the Penguins mean to me,” he said. “When I think about my time here in Pittsburgh with what we’ve been able to accomplish, with winning a couple of Cups and making the playoffs every year and challenging every single season … The standard and the bar here is high. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“As far as my experience here in Pittsburgh, it’s changed my life and my family’s life in so many ways. … If I could sum it up in one word, it would be ‘gratitude.’”