In part two of our column on hindsight and analysis of the Pittsburgh Penguins season and specifically of Mike Sullivan, we turned to the things which Sullivan got wrong or could have done better. Of course, because some things weren’t tried, we’ll never know the answer and several situations could have been made worse. And it should be noted, the Penguins whimpered into the offseason and it is unlikely anything Sullivan could have done to make his team a system-loving, gritty, hungry team like the New York Islanders who beat them.
Read Part One– Mike Sullivan vs. Social Media: 5 Things Sullivan Got Right
The Penguins staggered through the season for months. The locker room was a dark place as the Penguins sank to the bottom of the Eastern Conference in November. There weren’t answers as Sullivan pushed every button only to find a mismatched roster with nothing to play for. It seemed the Penguins failed in a different phase every night. Goaltending faltered some nights, defense faltered on others, and the forward lines had inescapable problems other than the Guentzel-Crosby combo.
Derick Brassard was continually unhappy unless he was given a top-six role, it seemed Phil Kessel would only play with Evgeni Malkin and the fourth line sputtered with Riley Sheahan in the middle and Daniel Sprong on the right side. The fourth line also faltered with Cullen in the middle and Sprong on the wing.
One thing which Sullivan got right which we didn’t include in Part One was putting Sheahan on the left with Cullen in the middle and Zach Aston-Reese on the right wing. That fourth line sprang to life and gave the Penguins a second consistent line and a little bit of offensive pop, too.
Things Sullivan Got Wrong (In No Particular Order)
1. Jack Johnson on the Right / Defense
Johnson defends his own zone well enough but it was often painful watching forecheckers attack Johnson with impunity. In full fairness to Johnson, the team wasn’t exactly playing as a five-man unit in the first several months and outlet passes weren’t always as available as they should have been. However, forecheckers quickly learned to angle their attack on Johnson to keep him on his backhand which forced Johnson to use the glass to advance the puck. It wasn’t a pass as much as it was a clearing attempt which ceded possession.
It’s no wonder fans were upset. It was a tough situation for Sullivan who had only one right-handed defenseman but a tougher job for Johnson who was adapting to a new situation and doing so on his off-side.
Things greatly improved for Johnson with the addition of Marcus Pettersson in December but the Penguins blue line was still subpar until Justin Schultz returned from his fractured leg in February and the Penguins acquired Erik Gudbranson later in February at the trade deadline.
There were also signs of life in mid-February as Sullivan inserted depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel into the lineup but Ruhwedel was soon injured and didn’t play again.
Brian Dumoulin made the switch to the right side late in the season after Kris Letang was injured and he showed well on the right. In hindsight, Sullivan could have been better off switching Dumoulin to the right instead of the hard-handed Johnson, keeping Jamie Oleksiak on the right and working with the big defensemen to keep his game simple or inserting Ruhwedel ahead of Juuso Riikola.
2. Derick Brassard
The Penguins had a player capable of more. Brassard was flat wrong to sulk or not give everything he had to the third line center role. However, Sullivan opened the door to playing left wing but didn’t fully explore it.
On the Penguins west coast road trip which straddled October into November, Sullivan put Brassard on Sidney Crosby’s left wing. Brassard racked up three assists in one game before being injured.
Brassard instantly had a hop in his skates, too. Sullivan only sparingly used Brassard on left wing going forward despite a plethora of centers on the roster.
One thing Sullivan didn’t try was Brassard on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing. Could Brassard have complimented the Malkin-Phil Kessel train wreck? Perhaps Brassard could have been the missing piece which got the pair to play less globetrotter hockey, or Brassard could have been the talent on the line, and the coaches could have re-united Kessel with Riley Sheahan on the third line.
Kessel and Sheahan had limited success in 2017-18. Malkin-Kessel weren’t playing good hockey together, nor did Brassard-Kessel. Perhaps a solution would have been Brassard-Malkin.
We’ll never know.
3. Penguins Power Play / Phil Kessel
This season, Kessel had a high percentage of power play points (36) against even strength points (46). In this case, the number of power play points were impressive. However, the Penguins also yielded an unsightly 15 shorthanded goals against. Specifics are a matter of interpretation, but Kessel was responsible for about half of those.
Kessel sprang to life on the Penguins power play but often lacked what Sullivan called termed “a defensive conscience.”
The Penguins vaunted power-play was at times brilliant and at times self-destructive. It would have been heresy in the fan base, but moving Kessel from the top power-play unit could have been used to solidify the group.
Would the Penguins have lost much offensive firepower with leading goal scorer Jake Guentzel on the top unit instead? They certainly would have gained some responsibility, a player willing to go to the net, and even if Guentzel lacks Kessel’s wicked shot, Guentzel is a sniper, too. Sullivan lightly joked about not using his leading goal scorer on the power play during the Round One loss.
Perhaps he should have used Guentzel. That opinion was written here several months ago.
The Penguins power play won a few games for the team but it also lost a few, too. How many times was the phrase, “the game changed on that shorthanded goal,” uttered?
Kessel by his own admission last week did not have a good season, despite a robust point-per-game point total. There were too many examples of Kessel not playing good hockey which directly cost his team. Sullivan dished a couple of punishments including a third period benching in December and two other low-ice-time nights.
But Sullivan mostly acquiesced to his star’s wishes and kept Malkin-Kessel united in the first two months then for most of the season after the horrendous showing of Brassard-Kessel in December.
Did Kessel need a swift kick? Or would that have sent the player into a deep pout? A harsh move could have gambled the season, but in hindsight, the season wasn’t much anyway.