Let’s be brutally honest with each other. At some point in the last eight months, everyone has wondered about Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and his shelf life as the Penguins bench boss. He’s been behind the Penguins bench for more than five years, though the stench of the disappointments before Sullivan seems like recent memory, just as the Stanley Cup parade nearly four years ago seems like yesterday.
They’re not recent memory. Either one. And there were quiet conversations among people around hockey if assistant coaches Mike Vellucci or Todd Reirden was the “Sullivan insurance policy” if this season didn’t go well.
Scratch all of that. Erase it and file it under T for trash.
As the Penguins won their fifth straight game despite a lineup rocked by injury and broke a seven-year streak of losing in Boston, it became apparent: Mike Sullivan might be doing his best coaching job since his first year behind the bench, which began in December 2015 and ended in June 2016 with a Stanley Cup on San Jose ice.
Sullivan has never won a Jack Adams award. He does have a pair of diamond encrusted consolation prizes, though.
The rag-tag Penguins roster beset by injuries and filled players looking for a chance just snapped a streak of 12 winless games in Boston, which dates back to 2014 or 2013 if you want a regulation win. And the Penguins did it with impeccable team defense, just as they did on Monday night against the typically stingy New York Islanders.
“You could say it starts with Sully. He was the guy that has been preaching it. I think he’s been preaching it for the last couple of years. But, you know, it’s not something you can just flip the switch,” Zach Aston-Reese said. “It’s something you got to work at. And it’s a mindset, and it’s a skill set as well. So it’s something that’s taking time…
…So things are just finally coming together, and everyone’s buying into it.”
How many times have you heard the Penguins players use the phrase “buying in” in a positive connotation since 2017?
If you can find one, please let me know. The phrase is usually preceded by the words, “everyone has to be” or “not everyone is.”
But on Monday, Jared McCann also credited his head coach.
“Sully’s done a great job of giving us our roles, and the players have executed it,” McCann said. “I feel like sometimes we’re getting hurt every night, and we have that mindset of next man up whether it’s forward or defense, we’ve got it covered.”
We can put to rest any talk of Sullivan losing the room, right?
PHN put the question back to Sullivan. We didn’t have to make any past references to players not buying in, specific or general. If you don’t know the players that could be, you must be new here. From grinders and AHL players like Frederick Gaudreau and Anthony Angello, who are making a home in the NHL, to the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are singing the same song.
Does Sullivan have a better relationship with this team than he had in the past?
Sullivan gave a lengthy answer, and in it was praise for his players, but and a bit of praise for the chemistry the team has developed.
“I don’t know. I think there’s been there’s a number of players here that we’ve been together for a number of years now, and I’d like to believe that we have a pretty good relationship with those guys,” Sullivan said. “Over the years, we’ve been through a lot together, winning championships and having some disappointments as well. So when you go through experiences like that, I think relationships grow stronger.
“I think the new guys that we have fit in with our group really well. I really like the chemistry we have right now. We’ve got a nice mix of veteran guys that are leading the charge here with some young, energetic, enthusiastic players that that are excited to be a part of it. And I think when you have that combination, it usually makes for a pretty healthy environment.”
Perhaps some Jack Adams talk will spring forth. Why not? The Penguins are tied for first place in the MassMutual East Division. But that doesn’t seem to be a front-burner topic for anyone.
For the first time in a while, Mike Sullivan’s Penguins have complete buy-in. There is no talk of fading stars or saying goodbye. All of the Penguins are buying in.
So that’s what it looks like. It’s been a while.