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The Penguins Catch-22 with Mike Sullivan; Why It Matters

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Pittsburgh Penguins game, Mike Sullivan. Pens lose to Florida Panthers

There is no shortage of Pittsburgh Penguins fans who would like to warm coach Mike Sullivan’s seat to an uncomfortable degree. After a pair of seasons without a playoff berth and no playoff series victories since 2018, any coach would be in hot water, and the spate of teams this season that found success with new coaches only adds to the desire.

The team’s performance this season, or more specifically, the lack thereof on many nights, would often point a finger straight at the coach. Still, the Penguins’ situation is far more complex and just a bit different than the garden-variety team hoping to reverse their recent fortunes.

There is no question that Sullivan and the Penguins’ core three—Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin—have grown close. The players support him without equivocation despite the growing lack of on-ice success, and Sullivan has placed far more trust in them than a coach would with ordinary players.

Any coach, new or existing, would place a great deal of faith and credibility in the Penguins’ core three. In discussing the matter after The Final Word on WXPI Sunday night, I compared Sullivan to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher’s last couple of seasons, which included a Super Bowl win and a mediocre disappointment.

A coach will treat veterans of that status differently. Every coach would, but there is a line between respect and deference. Cowher probably crossed it in his final season. I know where Penguins fans stand with Sullivan, too,

And therein lies the Penguins’ Catch-22. A new coach could come in and grab the team by the shoulders and demand a whole new game. The coach could shout or quietly explain, but as long as the Penguins’ core is together, it will remain their team. If they’re not happy with the changes, the coach will quickly lose the room.

It would be the same for every sports team in every league. Perhaps you remember the friction with former coach Mike Johnston, whose shortlived Penguins tenure included the most serious “Crosby is unhappy and could leave” rumors.

Any new coach will pay the core the same respect.

Coaching, Changes

Rick Tocchet of the Vancouver Canucks and Kris Knobloch of the Edmonton Oilers made changes this season and in the playoffs. Knoblauch’s ability to change the mindset in Edmonton was the biggest catalyst for Edmonton rallying from a betting long-shot at mid-season to the Stanley Cup Final. Tocchet also transformed the thinking and the style of the Canucks.

Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer inserted Dallas prospect and AHL MVP Mavrik Bourque into the Game 6 lineup Sunday. It was a bold move in a potentially deciding game that helped Dallas outshoot Edmonton 35-10 (but Dallas lost 2-1).

Would Sullivan boldly make the types of changes that the others made? He certainly used to make those big changes, and his tactical adjustments were a big reason the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals en route to the 2017 Stanley Cup.

It’s amazing how smart coaches can appear with a good team and how dumb they can appear with a bad team. It seems no one notices changes when you lose unless they’re the cause of the loss.

Examples, Please?

Sure, how much worse could the Penguins’ situation get, right?

One prime example of how much worse it could get also involves Sullivan. Vancouver was tired of losing playoff series despite a plethora of talent and wanted a culture change. Following their successful stint with the New York Rangers, head coach John Tortorella and assistant coach Sullivan took over in 2013-14.

Tortorella immediately targeted the aging Sedin twins, as he’s known to do with star players who don’t play to his style. See also Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Johansen. As an assistant coach, Sullivan was in the middle of the battle.

Tortorella and Sullivan quickly lost the team and lasted just one season in Vancouver. The Canucks finished first in their division the season prior and second in the following season but finished fifth under Tortorella.

The coaches didn’t respect the room, certainly didn’t read the room, and accomplished nothing. A new Penguins coach could come in and upset the apple cart with any one of the three core members or all three at once, but most likely, things would get worse, not better.

No, any new coach would also pay the same respect to Sidney Crosby as Sullivan or any new coach would quickly lose the team.

It’s why president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas had no incentive to put coaching change on his summer to-do list, at least until Dubas feels Sullivan follows Cowher across the line in being too deferential.

It’s the perfect Catch-22.

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Mark
Mark
12 days ago

Nailed it. Great analysis. Great column

DFresh
DFresh
12 days ago

I don’t disagree sully has become quite deferential to the core, but let’s be real. He was also the one that came behind two coaching hires that were far too deferential and changed that culture. As Dubas said, we would need the next sully. Not the next Bylsma or Johnston. Catch 22 indeed.

Katzwasrightallalong
Katzwasrightallalong
12 days ago

Just as they missed the boat by extending Malkin and perhaps not trading him earlier , the extension of Sullivan was an unforced error. FSG was and maybe still is enamored with Sullivan so at this point they deserve each other . Another non qualifying season will occur, as I said last year at this time , and change will occur. I expect empty seats and angry fans by February or earlier.

Last edited 12 days ago by Katz
DMR
DMR
12 days ago

Anyone watching the final four teams in the conference finals last week must know how far away the Pens currently are from winning anything! Depressing.

Uros
Uros
12 days ago
Reply to  DMR

Anyone watcing Bobrovsky, Shesterkin, Skinner and Oettinger, must know how far away the Pens currently are from having good goaltending.

Aaron
Aaron
11 days ago
Reply to  Uros

If you swap Shesterkin and Jarry, the results are still similar. If you go back and watch 2016 and 2017, Matt Murray played out of his mind (definitely was not sustainable). All final 4 teams have great depth and solid d cores. The Penguins have 2 solid lines (forwards and defense) on their best days. Their goaltending wasn’t the best but it’s not the major problem.

Irish Protection
Irish Protection
10 days ago
Reply to  DMR

DMR, nailed it. This team is dead. Like the Hawks with Kane, Toews, Keith etc. Like the Red Wings and all their aging teams. Coaches helped destroying the team. Only chance will be cleaning house. Sully is cancer and don’t care. Making big money. Crosby kept everyone and helped destroy team. Really old, soft, small team. Thank God, Steelers changed drastically with Khan and Weidl. Exciting to see team and chemistry change. Nasty, tough coming back to Steelers.

Justin
Justin
12 days ago

Hey look my comments been removed. Go figure. What’s the matter, can’t handle a little criticism? Unbelievable

Irish Protection
Irish Protection
10 days ago
Reply to  Justin

Justin, nobody has been more critical of this team. Because I love the game and we spend a lot of money for Penguins and Steelers tickets and games. I can’t stand what has happened to this team and Sully is serious problem. Dan and his staff has allowed me and others voice our opinions. Only one in Pittsburgh Sports Media that allows everyone’s opinions. He also has been critical! Very rare.

Donny D
Donny D
12 days ago

I have been a fan of Sully and he’ll land his next job in a heartbeat. but…

Of the final 4 coaches this year, 2 were first year coaches (1 mid season) and two were second year coaches.

2023 final 4: three first year coaches, including championship

2022 final 4: 1 first year; 1 mid year replacement

2021 final 4: 1 mid year, 1 2nd year, 1 3rd year

Pete
Pete
12 days ago

LOL
Keep Sully Keep Losing.
No Catch-22 at all. A new coach couldn’t do worse.
Whats he/she going to do?
Miss the playoffs?
Get eliminated in the 1st round?
We’ve had 6 years of that.
No coach could do worse.

Web1350
Web1350
12 days ago
Reply to  Pete

These have been my thoughts all along

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
12 days ago

Dan,You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind about this, but good try 😁 People pick out players and coaches to hate and stick to it.

Jstripsky
Jstripsky
12 days ago

Does the core need to have a open and honest meeting with Dubas and Sullivan about what will happen if last year’s performance repeats itself? We keep hearing about the veteran leadership, so let’s see them motivate the rest of the team.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
11 days ago
Reply to  Jstripsky

It’s odd the some of this leadership had to come from Eller.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
12 days ago

As far as I am concerned players should not have any input./ They should go out and do their best every game. I know Crosby is the heart of the team but he is nothing more than an employee. We need a coach who is not their buddy. We need a take charge coach.

Vittorio
Vittorio
11 days ago

And that’s how you lose Sid. Your mentality for a coach is more militaristic than actual hockey coach. Sid is the face of the team not the fans. I mean do you want Sid to ask for a trade cause the way you want a coach will lead to him asking for a trade.

Irish Protection
Irish Protection
10 days ago

Stephen, Sully is Coach because of Crosby. Penguins aren’t only team with Star having influence. If Crosby wants a bigger, more physical team or presence then Penguins would have it. Kane, Keith and Toews did same thing with Hawks and destroyed team in later years

Sam
Sam
12 days ago

It’s called leadership, and as the coach, Teflon Mike ain’t showing it. He’s gonna get paid $5.5M per year for 3 years. What exactly does he do if he can’t get the core 3 to follow his instruction? Do you think if Tocchet were our coach, he wouldn’t command the respect of the core? The man scored 440 goals, won a Cup, and owns the all-time record for Gordie Howe hat tricks with 18. He knows what it takes to win, been there done that. He has a leg to stand on with the core. Teflon Mike was a crappy… Read more »

Deppert
Deppert
12 days ago
Reply to  Sam

Tocchet may have commanded respect but he ran off one goal scorer and possibly emotionally damaged his $11.6m/yr top scorer through his demands of playing tough and with defensive structure. Bring a guy like him in and who knows what might happen; the scenario that Dan laid out is very real, the core could all bail on him. There is no magic bullet.

Last edited 12 days ago by Deppert
DNow
DNow
12 days ago

Where’s Gerard Gallant these days?

wesman33
wesman33
12 days ago

Omg I so disagree Dan. In my opinion the core three would welcome a coaching change with open arms. They are all three on the back nine and they want to win desperately. All three are TEAM players. A new coach can only help at this point and these players certainly understand this

Sam
Sam
11 days ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

It’s a co-dependent relationship between the core and Teflon Mike. I’ll explain.

Core: “Don’t get in our grill about anything, let us do what we’ve always done, and we’ll sing your praises, you get to keep your job, and collect $5.5M/year.”

Teflon Mike: “I’ll be hands off on what you guys do, but I need your support.”

Core gets free reign, Teflon Mike makes his big bucks. Classic co-dependency.

Clyde
Clyde
12 days ago

Sulli and the core need to go.

Aaron
Aaron
11 days ago

Knoblauch leading the Oilers to the final, Maurice last year with the Panthers, even back in 2016 when Sully took over and won the cup. It’s time for a coaching change.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
11 days ago
Reply to  Aaron

Well, it’s really not about winning. I think it’s about tickets and merchandise first, and if winning comes along with it, great. Dubas has to work with that in mind because he won’t get to do anything substantial until the Big3 are done for good. IOW, what Sid wants Sid gets.

Wasnt
Wasnt
11 days ago

So between the lines your saying Sully is going nowhere because the core is running the show…..so next year same ole same ole. Kind of like the Powerplay…good grief.