You could see it coming from miles away. The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a change and it started with the head coach position. In fact, I’m surprised that it took this long. On Saturday, Jim Rutherford announced that both Mike Johnston and Assistant Coach Gary Agnew were relieved of their duties. When speaking with the media after the announcement, Rutherford stated that he has been pondering this decision since two consecutive poor performances in mid-November, which saw the Penguins fall to both the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils.
It’s interesting that the Penguins decided to keep assistant coach Rick Tocchet on board throughout these changes. Tocchet was hired to handle the Penguins’ power play last summer and while there have been whispers that Johnston took over that unit, there’s no question that Tocchet has been far less impactful than the organization had hoped when they hired him. They also expected him to bring a sort of toughness to the Penguins’ approach, which seemed to fit the narrative last season but considering how the Penguins are currently constructed, I don’t see how Tocchet still fits the equation. He’s reportedly working with the forwards and handling 5-on-5 pre-scout, according to what was said following the Penguins’ morning skate today.
Mike Sullivan got the call to take over and with no mention of an interim title, it looks as if he’s the guy for as long as he can find success. Sullivan was coaching the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, leading the ‘Baby’ Penguins’ to an 18-5-0 record before getting the call for NHL duties. How will he approach his newest challenge?
Sullivan’s words should be music to the ears of the Penguins’ faithful. His system is based on speed with and without the puck and when it comes to their most talented players, he wants to allow for creativity. It’s widely assumed that Sidney Crosby’s lack of production has been partly due to his imprisonment in a strict, defensive-minded system. Might we see him flourish again under Sullivan? It sounds like he’ll have the freedom to do the things that he does best with the puck and likely won’t find himself pinned below the goal-line in the Penguins’ defensive zone. So, that surely bodes well for a boost in production.
The Penguins Still Have Their Work Cutout for Them
A change in approach can obviously go a long way. Also, a change in how the head coach views Pittsburgh’s personnel should help spring the likes of Daniel Sprong and Adam Clendening into more prominent roles. Or, at least get them out of the press box more consistently. However, the Penguins still have a multitude of issues that need addressed, starting with their blue line.
Rutherford cited David Warsofsky as someone who could help this defensive group improve due to his skating ability and puck skills. And, he’s right. He also discussed the improvement we’ve all witnessed in Brian Dumoulin’s game, along with the fact that Olli Maatta is returning to form. Dumoulin has been a very steady hand this season and has performed admirably in a shutdown role alongside Ben Lovejoy. Those are all great signs for the Penguins but they still need to add a legit top-four defender. According to Rutherford…
I’d like to add another player or two. Hopefully, we can.
In a season that has yet to see a trade that involves an active NHL roster player, it won’t be easy. But Rutherford is motivated and normally gets his man. He’s looking for a top-four defenseman and another possible suitor for Crosby’s wing.
The Penguins’ power play is another area of grave concern. Despite some recent signs of production as of late, this group continues to disappoint. A unit with that much talent should be a centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s success but they’ve been exactly opposite of that. With Sullivan at the helm, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins ranked 7th in the AHL with a 20.2-percent success rate. I’m sure that will be an area of focus for the new head coach. It has to be.
No More Excuses
Johnston took the brunt of the blame for Pittsburgh’s slower-than-expected start to 2015-16 and rightfully so. He was widely criticized for his use of Pittsburgh’s talented centers, most notably Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as well as his continued lineup decisions that saw young players frequently stashed in the press box and veterans like Rob Scuderi taking the ice on a nightly basis. Now, with Johnston out of the picture, the Penguins and their newly assembled coaching staff are out of excuses. It’s time to get down to business and they need to do so quickly. The rest of the NHL isn’t going to wait for them to mesh.
The same thing goes for Rutherford. If things don’t work out with Sullivan and the Penguins continue to struggle, Rutherford will likely be the next name on the chopping block. I believe that he did some great things with this roster but there’s no question he has fumbled some major decisions that are impacting this team in a large way. While many view the swap of Simon Despres for Lovejoy as his greatest mishap thus far, I happen to think that it was allowing the New Jersey Devils to swipe John Hynes. Hopefully, Sullivan will prove to be the answer and the decision to let Hynes walk won’t haunt this team.
Lastly, Crosby is also out of excuses. Sullivan’s offensive approach, at least on paper, is quite similar to that of former Penguins’ bench boss Dan Bylsma. Crosby was obviously very productive in that system and the Penguins need him to find that scoring touch again. When we’re looking back at how the Penguins’ fared this season in the Mike Sullivan era, will we talk about Crosby’s return to offensive supremacy or will we see that it wasn’t the coach? It’s up to him now.
Patience is required for this Penguins team as they embark into the next chapter for this organization. Unfortunately, they don’t have the privilege of experimenting throughout October and November with their new coach and will need to find success while also implementing their new systems and approach. The Penguins made a coaching change in February of 2009 and won the Stanley Cup just four months later. Can they repeat that success?
Pittsburgh Penguins writer for TheHockeyWriters.Com and PittsburghHockeyNow.Com. Youth hockey coach, and student of the game.