In the likely final report card of the 2018-19 season, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is under the spotlight. From player usage to locker room cohesion, the Penguins coach took his share of heat, internally and externally after the Penguins sputtered to a Round One loss without so much as one postseason win.
It was a hard knock to Sullivan’s reputation just as it was to some of the Penguins stars but the head coach is some crosshairs with controversial player usage and ultimately failure. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford credited Sullivan with his “best coaching job” in four seasons but was that public support or legitimate praise?
Much of the Penguins season can be defined or explained in the troubles with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. As words and stories have trickled out from behind closed doors since the end of the Penguins season, Sullivan’s job not only seemed difficult but impossible. There were mid-season reports of friction between Sullivan, Malkin, and Kessel. With the benefit of time and more information, we learned and the hear emanated from system demands and player refusals.
It’s hard to fault a coach in that instance unless you’re loyal to a player over a team. In fact, because of the few stories which have been published and Rutherford’s hint at more during his final press conference, every question of Sullivan must come with an asterisk; we just don’t know the motivations or limitations Sullivan was forced to manage.
Mike Sullivan: B
But the Malkin-Kessel flap consistently led to a mess on the ice. The coach relented and reunited the pair later in the season after separating them for most of the middle 40 games. The mess didn’t improve. Turnovers and sloppiness were the order.
When a coach installs a system contrary to his star player’s skills, that is generally a detriment to the team and a mark against the coach. However, this case is different as the coach didn’t install a system which conflicted with Malkin or even Kessel, but simply demanded they play deeper in their own zone and make smarter plays with the puck.
That’s not exactly pulling the parking brake on a Ferarri.
The main criticism Sullivan has received was player usage. Unfortunately, social media can create perceptions and confirmation bias which skew the actual situation. We’ve been over the Dominik Simon effect. No one can quite explain how a player can accrue so few points but generate so much offense. However, it exists. Simon elevated the offensive output of every center including Crosby, but especially the third line centers.
Sullivan may have overused Simon on the top line with Crosby and underutilized Kessel in the same spot. Kessel surged when first paired with Crosby but the moment that explosion cooled, it was over and rarely used again. The line popped three goals against the New York Islanders on Dec. 6.
In 96 minutes this season, Kessel, Guentzel, and Crosby accounted for 11 goals and yielded just two. By every metric, they were superior to their opposition but coaches pulled the plug before the line could have bad games or go through the inconsistencies which follow Kessel.
Perhaps Crosby would have been in a better position to demand more of Kessel? Perhaps coaches were afraid Kessel’s bad habits would submarine the Penguins most productive pairing of Crosby-Jake Guentsel.
And perhaps that decision to stop using Kessel with the top line stemmed from the locker room issues?
Sullivan also kept defenseman Jack Johnson on the right side. That simply didn’t need to be. Through the necessity of injuries which racked the Penguins in March, Brian Dumoulin played on the right side with Olli Maatta. Dumoulin was effortless and smooth on the right. Given Johnson’s struggles with the puck on the right side, it’s a legitimate question why that wasn’t deployed far, far sooner.
The Penguins stumbled and shuffled through a malaise in the first half of the season. The defense had far too many pairings and experiments. Surely that contributed to the negativity. Dumoulin could have buoyed the Penguins defense.
Locker Room Management
Just how great were the internal problems? Did they extend beyond Malkin and Kessel?
Sullivan tried to do what was best for his team and put Kessel on the third line with Derick Brassard. That should have clicked or at least been a passable line; a playmaking center and a right wing known for a wicked wrister. Instead, that line became a bigger albatross than Malkin-Kessel. The cooperative play between Brassard and Kessel was exactly zero.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the red flags. The spoken confidence was more lip service and acceptance of a flawed situation than it was actual confidence.
Sullivan tried to manage the situation instead of breaking it, as his former boss John Tortorella often does. Until the end, Sullivan kept pushing for what he wanted without publicly singling out or exacerbating the situation.
Was that the right way to handle it? If that blows up, it wrecks the season. If it works, you could have a situation like the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning which won the Stanley Cup despite a near brawl between coach and star center Vincent Lecavalier.
Under trying circumstances, Sullivan kept the team together to make the playoffs. In the postseason, he was guilty of overthinking the situation and shuffled the lines to his detriment, notably breaking up the Penguins dominant third line with Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bjugstad.
By the time that line was reunited later in the series, the final song had been written and it was simply a matter of playing the final chords.
Every coach can be second-guessed but in totality, Sullivan did a strong job in a weak situation. If playing Simon too often on the top line because other forwards went ice cold in that spot is the greatest criticism, then the coach did pretty well.
The Pittsburgh Penguins result was bitterly disappointing and given the number of experiments, it seemed a few worked. Perhaps those, such as Dumoulin on the right, could have changed the severity of the problems. Or not. Those problems existed not by choice of the head coach but by petulance.
Sullivan earned his B and more.