Consistent Sullivan Earns Extension

Since arriving in Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, 2015 and replacing Mike Johnston as head coach of the Penguins, all Mike Sullivan has known is success.

Sullivan has guided the Penguins to an overall 55-24-10 regular season record, 16-8 post-season mark, and the 2016 Stanley Cup championship.

Along the way he changed the culture of the Penguins’ locker room, infused some youth and grit into a star-studded lineup, and gained the respect of his players for his communication skills, in-game decision-making, and consistent demeanor, approach and messages to the team.

So, it was not a surprise then that the Penguins rewarded Sullivan on Monday with a three-year contract extension through the 2019-20 season, a well-earned Christmas present from ownership and general manager Jim Rutherford.

“It’s a Privilege”

Sullivan became head coach of the Boston Bruins back in the summer of 2003 at the age of 35. His team won the Northeast Division regular season title with a 104-point campaign, but the Montreal Canadiens ousted the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs in seven games.

The following year, Sullivan’s Bruins failed to reach the post season, finishing with a 29-37-16 record; and he was fired.

Though he was well-regarded as an assistant to John Tortorella with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers in the ensuing seasons, Sullivan would wait nearly ten years before his next head coaching opportunity in the National Hockey League, the one the Penguins gave him a year ago.

So, when Sullivan was asked Tuesday in New Jersey about the contract extension, and the chance to coach this group of Pittsburgh Penguins, his heartfelt response is understandable.

“It certainly is a privilege to coach this group, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given.”

Sullivan was at times reflective and then stoically looking at the challenges ahead when discussing his job with the Penguins on Tuesday.

“From a personal standpoint, it’s hard for me to articulate what it’s meant to coach this group of players,” stated Sullivan. “To go through what we’ve gone through in this past year is hard to put into words. It’s just been a great journey; and I look forward to more of it.”

Sully’s Success

What is at the heart of Mike Sullivan’s success in Pittsburgh?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a roster that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel, among others. However, Johnston worked with the same roster. Though Johnston did manage a 98-point campaign in his only full season behind the Penguins’ bench in 2014-15, the players did not seem to respect him or his preferred style of play; and Johnston was thoroughly outcoached by Alain Vigneault during the five-game first-round playoff loss to the Rangers in the spring of 2015.

So, where did Sullivan succeed with this group that Johnston did not?

“To their credit, these guys, led by Sid, Geno, and Phil, they’ve all bought in,” explained Sullivan. “We need to be a hard team to play against, and not be trading chances up and down the ice; and these guys accepted that.”

Then the next question is: why did the Penguins’ top players “buy in” to what Sullivan was selling?

“(Sullivan) been really consistent in his message,” Crosby told The Hockey Writers Tuesday morning. “I think regardless of winning or losing he has an expectation of how he wants us to play, and that doesn’t waver based on the outcome all the time. He’s very consistent in his message and very detailed, and that’s made a big impact on us.”

When asking people around the Penguins the keys to Sullivan’s success, the word “consistent”, or some derivative of, is mentioned most.

“Sully is able to get his team to stick together and play together, and play consistent hockey,” Mike Lange, the Penguins’ long-time play by play broadcaster told The Hockey Writers. “He is so consistent is his own approach that the team follows with its own consistent play. That’s been the key to his success.”

Added Carl Hagelin, “I have a lot of respect for (Sullivan). He was one of my coaches in New York when I first started. and then I joined him here. He is very consistent in his message and approach. That sticks with the players.”