Maybe it seems like a long time ago or just yesterday that Mike Sullivan took over as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s been just a little more than eight years. He recounted Thursday what it felt like in December 2015 to take the reins of a club that had future Hall of Famers and a ton of potential.
He said when he accepted the offer from then-general manager Jim Rutherford, he was not thinking years and seasons down the road.
“I remember when Jim offered me the job and I became the head coach here in Pittsburgh, I remember how excited I was about the opportunity to work with some of the greatest players of their generation – some of the greatest players of all time, for that matter,” Sullivan said, referring to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
“And in the same breath, I was scared to death because obviously it’s a great opportunity but it’s also one that comes with high expectations. And so I remember having those feelings at the beginning.”
That’s right. Sullivan was exhilarated. And he was terrified.
“Could I have envisioned here I am eight-plus years later still on the bench with these guys? At that time, no.”
That was Dec. 12, 2015. (On a side note, shame on us local hockey reporters for overlooking that anniversary for more than two weeks, until PHN remembered to ask Sullivan about it.)
Within 18 months, Sullivan steered the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups. Who said fear is a bad thing?
Sullivan had coached in the NHL before, as an assistant and head coach with his hometown Boston Bruins in the mid-2000s, and as an assistant with three other clubs.
For the start of 2015-16, he was brought in as the head coach of the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. When things didn’t work out with second-year Penguins coach Mike Johnston, Sullivan was elevated to the Penguins job on Dec. 12.
Crosby was in a funk. The team was 15-10-3 but seemed to have talent beyond that record and its level of play, especially considering it was trying to recapture the magic that produced a Cup in 2009. Under Sullivan, the Penguins went 33-16-5 the balance of that season en route to the first of those two successive Stanley Cups.
Things haven’t been as robust since. There have been strong regular seasons, exciting runs and memorable games, but there have also been several first-round flameouts in the playoffs and, last year, no playoffs at all.
The Penguins, who host the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, have been getting better results lately this season, 5-1-1 in their past seven games and coming off a 7-0 pasting of the New York Islanders on Thursday.
But while they aren’t terribly far off the pace in terms of points, they are on the outside looking in as far as a playoff spot as the calendar year comes to a close.
Don’t think for a minute that Sullivan, 55, has lost any of his drive, not just to coach but also to coach this particular team.
“Obviously, it’s a privilege to be the coach of this team and to have the opportunity to coach these guys for as long as I have,” he said. “I certainly don’t take a day for granted. It’s an incredible privilege to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins … and I remain grateful for all the experiences that we’ve gone through, both good and bad.”
Yes, the bad. Sullivan accepts that as part of the rush of coaching.
“At the end of the day, that’s what drives us, all of us that are a part of the hockey world or the sports world — we like to get up every day and just get after it with a group of players,” he said. “I love the coaching aspect of it. I love being in the heat of the battle with these guys.
“The wins are great. I think when you experience the disappointments and the losses, that’s what makes the wins so rewarding. It’s hard to have one without the other, and I think that’s what we sign up for.”
Mike Sullivan is signed through the 2026-27 season. He has already pushed things in terms of the NHL coaching shelf life, but all indications are that he has the strong support of Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given here, and I still, to this day, look at my job as the ultimate privilege,” Sullivan said.