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Kingerski: Why Penguins’ Mike Sullivan’s Seat Should be Warm

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Mike Sullivan, Pittsbugh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins have not won a playoff series in six seasons and have missed the playoffs in two straight.

And a lot of heat has landed heavily on coach Mike Sullivan.

Although the heat has come solely from the outside, that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. And it doesn’t mean Sullivan is immune from internal heat, now or in the future.

The Toronto Maple Leafs fired coach Sheldon Keefe Thursday despite a two-year contract extension that was set to kick in for next season.

There was wild speculation that Keefe would be terminated should Toronto not escape the first round. Speculation continued that if it happened, Keefe would reunite with Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, with whom he worked together with the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL, with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, and Toronto in the NHL.

Yes, the pair have a history together.

Yes, the Penguins have two coaching openings: one as the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins—where many fans have penciled in Keefe—and one as Sullivan’s assistant.

First, let’s quell the rumors. It would be borderline disrespectful for Dubas to bring in Keefe, and that’s probably not going to happen. Neither Sullivan nor Dubas are unaware of the intense rumors that would explode from such a situation and the negative side-effects.

It would be counterproductive.

Furthermore, why would Keefe leap to such inferior jobs? There are and possibly will be more head coaching positions available. More bluntly, Dubas doesn’t need to hire Keefe right now for either position in order to have him waiting in the wings should Sullivan no longer be the Pittsburgh Penguins coach.

In other words, a reunion in the current situation is a bad move.

However, Sullivan’s future should not be guaranteed, either.

While complaints about his system are largely from the exterior, and the complaint that the team is stale is the same, there are legitimate problems that worsened as the losing and struggles dragged through the first 70 of 82 games.

Sullivan must answer why his team was far too unprepared to play on far too many nights.

Remember this gem from December 17: Penguins Grade–Internal Frustration, Team Deeply Flawed.

Throughout the season, you could fill in the Sullivan quote with several often repeated phrases, “We didn’t …”

The Penguins didn’t defend hard enough. The Penguins didn’t battle. They weren’t on their toes. Didn’t take care of the puck. Made too many mistakes. The Penguins didn’t score on the power play.

Sullivan’s frown was ever-present.

The benefit of a veteran team is supposed to be eliminating those mistakes and worries. A veteran team—the Penguins began the season as the oldest team in professional sports—should understand what must be done.

Talent or age might limit an older team, but the Penguins’ never-ending cascade of jaw-dropping mistakes befitting a nervous rookie and their consistently inconsistent lack of motivation were staggering.

A veteran team should be easy to coach. However, it certainly appeared the team was anything but. Little came together until the final 14 games when it was too late.

Don’t let the Penguins’ final and gallant charge erase the rotten taste of dysfunction. It was fun to cover, and it added quite a bit of optimism for next season, but did it fix any of the issues?

If they begin next season with the energy of an afternoon nap or the discipline of a pee-wee team in a learn-to-play program, things must change.

A coach should be judged by maximizing the team’s talent and by the players’ buy-in to the program.

That’s where Sullivan’s future should rest. If the Penguins improve on their haphazard, sloppy play and too frequent no-show performances, it will show that the coach has done his job, and the Penguins’ winningest coach with a pair of Stanley Cup rings has affirmed himself as the best choice for the job.

Dubas doesn’t need to put a contingency plan in place now. There will be coaches available, perhaps even Keefe, with NHL experience.

If the Penguins do not show improvement on the ice, there won’t be a choice. And that’s the scale on which Mike Sullivan’s future should rest.

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Matthew Caddy
Matthew Caddy
7 days ago

I see no problem bringing in Keefe to coach Wilkes as a way to light a fire under Sullivan and let him know his seat is getting warm. Then should Sullivan decide to leave or they want to part ways, there’s a replacement in-house. You know, kinda like they did when Bylsma replaced Therrien in 2009 and Sullivan himself replaced Johnston in 2015.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
7 days ago
Reply to  Matthew Caddy

He will probably get a job in the NHL.

Pete
Pete
7 days ago

Getting there Dan.
Yeah, let’s let Mikey have em unprepared and out of the playoff hunt by Thanksgiving again before making the change. That makes much more sense than getting a new coach now that can have a whole off-season and training camp to prepare.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
7 days ago

If Sullivan’s seat is warm, Dubas” should be hot enough to send him to another planet. He has been exceptionally incompetent.
Alex

JoJo
JoJo
7 days ago

These are professional hockey players. They know how to play hockey. The coach is simply someone who brings them together for a common cause to try to win. And that’s what Sullivan did when he arrived. But now it seems like no one has listened to him for a long time. A new voice is needed to change the downward trajectory. Assuming it’s avoidable.

Knobman
Knobman
7 days ago

This article gives a strong indication for dumping Sullivan. What was pointed out in the article has been a problem for years and not just this past season. Many coaches have been fired for less.

Aaron
Aaron
7 days ago

His seat should be piping hot. He’s always had superstars during his tenure and has accomplished nothing in the last 6+ years.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
7 days ago
Reply to  Aaron

This.

Cal
Cal
7 days ago

If the team signs Zadorov and a player (or two) with a nasty disposition, Sully could look like a genius again…

Mel Reichenbaugh
Mel Reichenbaugh
6 days ago

Sully IS and HAS been THE problem, he does not match lines, he overplays his stars, he does not play young players, has no use for any player with grit and his continued use of Harkins is just mind boggling!!! The list of players who have had success after leaving Sully is VERY long-Nylander, Sprong, Noesen, McCann, Poehling, F. Gaudreau, Lafferty, Bjugstad, Granlund, etc.-those are just the forwards!!!

Stardog
Stardog
6 days ago

Wait…huh? IF the Penguins don’t show improvement next season then Sullivan should be gone? What about the past 2 seasons (actually several more than that) where the team has shown that very decline that you say should cost him his job IF it happens. This same sentiment has, for the past 2 off-seasons, been noted by many and ownership took action on every area from players to staff EXCEPT Mike Sullivan. Hell, many of the players who couldn’t “get it done” under his regime were then shipped out and magically thrived once they stepped away from Sullivan. So many people… Read more »

Pete
Pete
6 days ago
Reply to  Stardog

Exactly right. Sully is a huge part of the problem. It is NOT a coincidence that players thrive after they get away from Sully.

Keep Sully, keep losing!