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Steigerwald: In Sullivan We Trust



Mike Sullivan. By Michael Miller, Own work | CC BY-SA 4.0

Mike Sullivan would appear to be a pretty good coach.

He’s on a short list of coaches who have won multiple Stanley Cups and he’s on an even shorter list of coaches who have won two back-to-back.

It wouldn’t be hard to find someone who would tell you that it’s easy to win when you have stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Your two word response to that should be Mike Johnston.

He’s the guy who preceded Sullivan and managed to somehow make Sidney Crosby disappear.

There have been plenty of coaches who have been unsuccessful with a bench full of stars. The great coaches know how to get the best out of their stars and that often requires treating stars differently from everyone else.

That brings us around to Phil Kessel.

When it became apparent that Rick Tocchet was going to leave his job as Sullivan’s assistant to take the head coaching job in Arizona, word got out that Kessel and Sullivan had a problem.

That led to speculation about the Penguins trying to trade Kessel and General Manager Jim Rutherford did his best to end it by saying he had no interest in trading him.

The fact that this and the search for a third line center are the Penguins’ biggest off season “problems” should tell you where the Penguins are as an organ-I-zation.

When you win win back-to-back Cups and you’re favored to win another one, you have to look hard to find a problem.

Sullivan and Kessel, you would think, are smart enough to know that neither would have won one Stanley Cup without the other. This should not be an issue in October. Figure it out.

And don’t underestimate the job that Sullivan did handling the stars. Crosby and Malkin are two of the biggest stars in hockey and Kessel was the number one star on his team before showing up in Pittsburgh.

Johnston couldn’t handle it.

Imagine if Johnston had said this after being fired in December of 2015:

“All those guys wanted was ice time. That’s what they loved the most because that’s what brought the stats.”

“They worried about individual stats because that’s what they got paid for. Trying to get them to think of team goals was like trying to teach table manners to a shark.”

“When you get on that ice you want to win and you want to get the Stanley Cup. That should supersede everybody’s personal interests. In some cases it just doesn’t.”

That was Gene Ubriaco in December of 1989 after being fired by the Penguins. The sharks he was trying to teach table manners were Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey.

A year later, that team went on to do exactly what Mike Johnston’s team did – win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Should Kessel shoot more and pass less? Maybe. But his shooting and passing had a lot to do with the Penguins winning two Cups and maybe he’s become more comfortable with not being the number one star, which he was in Toronto before coming to Pittsburgh.

He has one of the best shots in NHL history and the Penguins brought him here to shoot the puck and score goals but maybe Kessel can actually become more effective by becoming more of a playmaker. Defenders and goalies have always expected a shot when he had the puck. Becoming a little less predictable may eventually create more open shots for him and he’s a good enough passer that he can set up lots of easy goals for his line mates.

Mike Sullivan has already done the best coaching job in Penguins history and it’s not close. I have a feeling that he’s not losing sleep this Summer thinking about how he’s going to handle Phil Kessel.

And Kessel shouldn’t be spending any time worrying about how he’s going to co-exist with Sullivan without having Rick Tocchet around to cheer him up.

I have a feeling that the Kessel-Sullivan “feud” is a much bigger deal with the media than it is with the two of them.

There are 25 or 30 other NHL teams that wish they could have major  “problems” like this to solve in their off season.

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t spend a lot of time observing the body language between Mike Sullivan and Phil Kessel next season.

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John has over 40 years experience doing just about everything you can do in Pittsburgh sports, including work at KDKA (TV and Radio), WTAE, the Tribune-Review and many more. Author of Just Watch The Game. Columnist and opinion writer here and at Pittsburgh Sports Now. You can regularly find John on Twitter and Facebook.

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