The Pittsburgh Penguins are 45-17-9 heading into their final 11 games of the 2016-17 season. They lead the league in goals-for with 246, with the nearest team — the Minnesota Wild — 14 goals behind them. Their powerplay has struggled on the road but still ranks sixth overall and they’re just two points away from clinching the franchise’s 11th consecutive playoff berth. Mike Sullivan hasn’t garnered nearly enough attention for what he’s doing in Pittsburgh these days.
Especially when you consider their injury issues this season.
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) March 18, 2017
It’s easy to overlook coaching when a team deploys superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Some would even argue that those types of players will carry a team to at least some form of success despite who they have behind the bench. However, as the Penguins proved during the Mike Johnston era, it still takes a special bench boss to accomplish so much in such a short time — and when you consider the multitude of egos on a star-studded team like the Penguins — maybe that individual deserves even more credit than usual.
Add Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Marc-Andre Fleury and the unique goaltending situation Pittsburgh is facing into the mix and you’re hard pressed to make a case against Sullivan for coach of the year. No matter the talent scale, his players are aligned and play ‘his way’. And now, it’s the ‘Penguin way’.
No Matter What, Just Play
An NHL season is packed full of distractions and adversities. After winning the Stanley Cup last season, the Penguins are certainly no strangers to that reality. They’re the measuring stick, as well as the main target for every opponent they face until someone dethrones them. Their answer to holding that responsibility?
Pittsburgh began the 2016-17 season without Crosby in the lineup, and they were also missing goaltender Matt Murray due to an injury suffered in the World Cup of Hockey. Since that point, they’ve accumulated nearly 200 man games lost — with plenty of those injuries suffered by key players — and they’ve continued to battle through it all while piling up wins. They don’t sulk or make excuses when they turn in a poor effort, it’s simply a blip on the radar that gets addressed in the next contest. That isn’t something that could be said for the Penguins in recent seasons.
In fact, it was quite opposite and teams knew they could take advantage of the fact they were so easily frustrated.
This team is fully invested in Sullivan’s mantra, and it starts with their captain. Crosby’s leadership has grown immensely under his new bench boss. It was noticeable early-on and continues to impress as the season progresses. The reason for that growth — and the improved confidence of all these players — really comes down to a few important traits that Sullivan boasts.
Trust, Accountability are the Cornerstones of Sullivan’s Success
In a world that strives on systematic game plans and limits the creativity of some of the world’s greatest athletes, Sullivan approaches things just a tad bit differently. He doesn’t deploy a free-for-all but he does allow his players to do what they do best.
Recently, the Penguins struck gold with the trio of Crosby, rookie Jake Guentzel and Crosby’s newest partner in crime — replacing the likes of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis as a mainstay on his line — Conor Sheary. The result is obvious when you watch these three in action and the numbers back up just how special they are together. There’s a multitude of reasons they’re such a great fit but the quote from Sullivan below, courtesy of Michelle Crechiolo at NHL.Com, sums it up perfectly.
My advice to both of those guys has been and will continue to be just don’t change your game. You just play and the rest of it will take care of itself. I think Sid being the player that he is, he certainly helps those guys a lot. I think Sid’s the glue that holds that line together, but certainly the three of them, to a man, they’ve all played terrific for us.
Sullivan implied that the onus is on Crosby to make that line click, as he’ll adapt to them and not the other way around. That’s the accountability portion, and it’s also a reflection of how much he respects Crosby as a player. He extends similar confidence in Malkin — and in general — the Penguins as a whole. It’s the biggest reason they love playing for him.
It’s also a major reason for their ability to plug in AHL depth and still be as potent as they are.
Plenty of coaches have had great seasons so far in 2016-17, and a few of them are in the Metropolitan Division with Sullivan and the Penguins. None of those teams, however, have faced the adversity that the defending Stanley Cup champions have. The fact that they’re still right there, in contention, and arguably a Cup favorite is largely in thanks to Sullivan. If his ability to turn the Penguins around last season wasn’t enough to get him nominated for the Jack Adams Award, this season certainly has to do it. And it’s hard to imagine the majority voting for someone else.