As NHL coaches go, six years behind one team’s bench is a lifetime. In a profession with better benefits but less job security than a blue politician in a red district, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is an anomaly.
Or red politician in a blue district, the analogy is the same.
Sullivan has lasted safely with one team into his seventh season. His star players haven’t revolted. Well, one or two did, and the team briskly shipped that player out of town but not before he played the best hockey of his life and helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cups.
The other one fell in line.
No, Mike Sullivan’s star players play to the system. If they don’t, some pine time is not out of the question–just ask Kasperi Kapanen. The Penguins play even better when adversity strikes or injuries mount.
“I think we felt we all felt very prepared so that we knew what to do on the ice and then just had to execute and do it doing the right way,” Dominik Simon said. “So yeah, I think I think we did that very well.”
For his part, Sullivan is as much a tactician as a motivator. It’s something of a crime that Sullivan, who has guided one of the most injury-ravaged teams in the NHL to repeated playoff berths, hasn’t won the Jack Adams for coach of the year. Then again, Jack Adams winners are only slightly less cursed than best-supporting actress Oscar winners.
Soon after, both are out of work.
Sullivan’s new boss, GM Ron Hextall, has figured out what the old boss came to know. Sullivan’s command of the team was readily apparent.
Tuesday night, his players, minus the top three forwards and one top-four defenseman, made headlines for their improbable win over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. With half as much talent on the ice as the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Penguins scorched Tampa Bay in a 6-2 win.
Sullivan didn’t make headlines by flinging sticks onto the ice or arguing calls until veins popped. He didn’t do anything to merit camera attention.
In front of the largest cable TV audience the NHL has accessed in 16 years, Sullivan was again on display–if you knew where to look.
“I think they didn’t like our forecheck too much. I feel like we played hard, you know,” said Simon. “That’s probably the biggest reason (why the Penguins won) that comes to my mind right now. But yeah, I think we had a great team effort. And yeah, I feel like everybody played really well.”
Sullivan was ever-present as Penguins defensemen barged to the half-wall to keep plays alive and generate offensive chances. The Penguins forecheck disrupted the Tampa Bay flow, and the Penguins backcheck redistributed the puck to black-and-gold held sticks. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach was on display as a rag-tag group of goal scorers beat the best team in the league by playing consistent, coordinated, honest team hockey.
In mid-September, who expected a well-executed counter-attack goal to read O’Connor to Lafferty to Boyle?
Simon scored the third Penguins goal. He had not scored an NHL goal since Feb. 2, 2020. Brian Boyle’s last red light was Jan. 16, 2020. Both of those tallies were before any such thing as COVID lockdowns, masks, or even before Joe Biden won the Democrat’s nomination; it’s been nearly two years since Simon or Boyle lit the lamp.
Sullivan had the most open and unsettled training camp of his six camps (seven if you count the training camp leading to the bubble). More spots were open, and more young players were capable of filling those spots than the Penguins have had in a long time.
Simon was one of those fighting for a job, just like O’Connor, Boyle, and Sam Lafferty.
“I love this, this part of our job. You know, I love getting on the ice with these guys. I love working with young players, and they bring a certain level of enthusiasm to the rink every day. It’s contagious and I think it’s good for our veteran guys when we have an infusion of youth…,” Sullivan responded to PHN before camp ended. “And for me, it’s always enjoyable…”
The team results speak to Sullivan’s ability to connect with the players. Most teams swoon when they go through a rash of injuries.
Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins Injury Card
The Penguins won the 2021 East Division despite missing Sidney Crosby for most of the first half of the season and Evgeni Malkin for the second half. Early in the season, half their blue line and, at another moment, nearly half of the forwards crew were on the trainer’s table.
According to NHL Injury Viz, in 2019-20, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the most significantly injured team in the NHL. More money was in the hot tub than any other team. In 2018-19, the Penguins were the seventh most significantly injured team.
And yet, the Penguins seemingly play a better brand of hockey without key players. Unheralded or unexpected players step to the fore—every time.
“Having said that, I love to work with veteran players as well. I just enjoy getting on the ice with the players. I think it’s the most fulfilling part of our job and just the journey, you know, and the daily endeavor of trying to help players improve in their own respective games, trying to help the team improve and as a group as far as our own predictability within our locker room, but yet unpredictability against our opponents.”
Remember the organization’s malaise when the Penguins named Mike Sullivan the head coach? The collective reaction was a loud groan as dire predictions reigned. At the time, Sullivan had not been a head coach in the NHL for over a decade, and his tenure as the head coach of his hometown Boston Bruins lasted only two seasons.
The Penguins had a couple of unpredictable wrinkles against Tampa Bay. After five years, the Penguins’ ability to win without their best players is not a coincidence.
That’s probably a pretty good thing. The Penguins will need to do a lot of it this season.