Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3 Greatest Head Coaches

Since the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the league along with six other franchises back in 1967 — one of them being their in-state rival Philadelphia Flyers — the organization has been writing a rather rich chapter for the history books.

The Penguins have discovered both peaks and valleys throughout their 54 years of existence. However, it was not until the ’90s that the professional ice hockey club from Pennsylvania really started to shine. The main and most obvious faces of that change would be their star players. With names like Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Mark Recchi, and Jaromír Jágr, there is no doubt about who stole the spotlight.

Jaromir Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins
Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1999 Quarter Finals of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Yet, to be able to win the Stanley Cup, a team also needs to be led by an off-ice authority. By somebody who has the power to set the direction of a team and hold on to it. Luckily for the Penguins, they have had several such great head coaches. Who are the top three in the history of the franchise?

3. Michel Therrien

The Penguins were entering the 2005-06 campaign with expectations set way higher than in previous seasons. The then-head coach Eddie Olczyk was given a much more accomplished team and a young prodigy named Sidney Crosby to work with. However, following a run of eight losses in nine games, he was fired, and general manager Craig Patrick replaced him with a former Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.

Williams Yeo Therrien Vigneault Philadelphia Flyers
Michel Therrien (second from right) (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This context is crucial to understanding Therrien’s role with the Penguins. At that time, the organization was struggling both financially and competitively and needed to turn the tides. Relocation hung in the air and the owners, Lemieux and Ron Burkle, were under pressure. As luck would have it, Therrien delivered.

The Penguins missed the playoffs in that season, but from there the team started to grow rapidly. Therrien’s coaching style — emphasizing defensive responsibility — brought the franchise its third Stanley Cups Final appearance in 2007-08, as they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.

While Therrien’s unvarnished approach to interacting with his players alienated a lot of them and all but assured that his shelf life would be somewhat limited, he preached principles of defensive responsibility that served them well during his tenure and after his departure.

Dave Molinari

Nonetheless, the Canadian-born coach was fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma, after having an unconvincing first half of the 2008-09 season. Thus, he stands alone as the only coach on this list without a Stanley Cup ring.

This might actually be one of the reasons some may argue Bylsma should figure on this list instead of Therrien. To be fair, the former NHL player holds the upper hand in some other major stats and accomplishments as well. One of them being the top win percentage (.670% in 401 games to Therrien’s .502% in 272) of all Penguins’ head coaches. Bylsma also remains the only one in the franchise’s history to win the Jack Adams Award for the best coach of the season.

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And hadn’t Bylsma lost to a lower seed opponent in each of the 5 postseasons following the Stanley Cup win, he would have been looked upon much differently.

2. Scotty Bowman

In the 1990-91 season, the Penguins managed to capture the franchise’s first of five Stanley Cups. At that time, Scotty Bowman served as the director of player development in Steel City, assisting head coach Bob Johnson. However, the celebrations were short-lived. Before the start of the 1991-92 season training camp, Johnson was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Not long after that, he passed away. Following the tragic event, Bowman was asked to take over as the head coach.

Scotty Bowman
Former Penguins coach Scotty Bowman at a game at the Montreal Forum during the late 1990s (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

And the to-be winningest coach in the NHL did so in style. In his first season as the main man behind the bench, Bowman and the star-stacked Penguins won the Cup for the second time in a row. And the team managed to transfer the momentum into the following season, as they captured to this day the only Presidents’ Trophy in the franchise’s history.

Bowman’s attention to detail and relentless coaching style kept his players grounded and focused on what mattered most, winning a Stanley Cup.


However, they lost to the New York Islanders in Round 2 of the playoffs and things fell apart. Following a contract dispute with the organization, the owner of the Red Wings Mike Ilitch offered Bowman to become their new head coach.

The legendary coach agreed and, one could even say, left Pittsburgh on a bad note. Nevertheless, despite the fact he only led the Penguins in 164 games, his legacy lingers as the early days of glory changed the franchise and helped shape its future. With a record of .628%, Bowman also sits third in the win percentage rankings among all Penguins’ coaches. The first two places belong to Dan Bylsma’s extraordinary .670% and Mike Sullivan’s .634%.

1. Mike Sullivan

The Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since the aforementioned 2005-06 season, and a big reason behind that is their current head coach. Sullivan was filling a vacancy created by the departure of Mike Johnston back in 2015-16. In terms of competitiveness, the organization wasn’t in good shape.

Mike Sullivan Jacques Martin Pittsburgh Penguins
Mike Sullivan and Jacques Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The team was on pace to miss the postseason. With Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel on the roster, that would have been nothing short of a disaster. On Christmas day, they were occupying the 19th spot in the league. Talking about the Penguins‘ captain, No. 87 was experiencing possibly his worst career slump, as he collected only 0.5 points per game in the first half of the season, buried as deep as 157th in the scoring race.

What Sullivan managed to do with the team was beyond belief. In the second half of the season, the Penguins started to work perfectly. Since Christmas, they went 47-20-5, including the playoffs as they beat the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. Crosby found his usual self again, finishing second in Hart Trophy voting only to Patrick Kane and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoff MVP. The American repeated the feat in the following season and thus achieved something no Penguins coach had ever done before him — win two Stanley Cups with the franchise.

Sullivan’s first order of business was to command the respect and attention of the room. That was his predecessor Mike Johnston’s fatal flaw.

– Frank Seravalli

Sullivan undoubtedly set the direction of the organization. However, the past three postseason appearances were not particularly successful for the team. Especially the Montreal Canadiens upset in the qualifying round in the 2019-20 season made many fans question the coach’s authority. The Cup window is closing up for the Penguins and there is a tough job ahead of Sullivan if he wants to lift the Holy Grail of hockey at least one more time.