The Pittsburgh Penguins have had anything but an easy ride this season. There were turns left and right with front office shakeups and injuries to key players. Questions of whether the tenures of veterans Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin were up became as loud as ever. Through it all, head coach Mike Sullivan steered them in the right direction and is quietly doing one of the best coaching jobs of his career.
Penguins Uneven Start
It looked like it was going to be a rollercoaster season for the Penguins in the first four weeks. Pittsburgh had a 5-6 record to start and got swept by the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. All their losses were on the road. They had a mirage of defensive injuries and both goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith were struggling mightily. Sullivan was able to keep them competitive by shuffling up lines and defensive pairings. They became known as the comeback team, squeaking out wins in overtime after falling behind. Sullivan didn’t panic and let his team find their game in those early weeks.
If inconsistent play, unstable goaltending and injuries weren’t eventful enough to start the season, Sullivan had to weather a front-office change when general manager (GM) Jim Rutherford, the man who hired him, abruptly resigned on Jan. 27.
Immediately, there were whispers of an impending rebuild with the hiring of Ron Hextall as the new GM and Brian Burke as Director of Hockey Operations. Sullivan made sure the Penguins did not get distracted by the outside chatter as they won six of the next eight games after the hiring. He paired Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust together, who have been unstoppable all season.
He put a struggling Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen together when he found they had chemistry. He gave Jarry the space to find confidence again in his game. With a mix of veteran and young players, Sullivan seamlessly fit new players into the lineup. Three players scored their first NHL goals this season, including Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who was a welcome surprise at the beginning of the season when the defense was depleted.
Players Love Sullivan
The players have acknowledged their coach’s impressive job this season. Forward Jared McCann said, “Sully’s done a great job of giving us our roles, and the players have executed it. I feel like sometimes we’re getting hurt every night, and we have that mindset of next man up whether it’s forward or defense, we’ve got it covered.” (from ‘Players Giving Mike Sullivan Credit’ Pittsburgh Hockey Now, 4/1/2021)
Sullivan provides the calm in the Penguins’ injury storms. This is hardly the best roster of his tenure, yet Pittsburgh is only two points out of first place. They are still finding ways to win games despite being without Malkin, who has been out since March 16. Sullivan doesn’t let his team get too down in the dumps, even after giving up 15 goals combined in back-to-back games last week. The Penguins responded with back-to-back wins against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, scoring a combined 11 goals on Thursday and Friday night.
Sullivan is signed through the 2022-23 season and has done enough this season to silence the critics who thought his time was up with the Penguins. He is the second-winningest head coach in franchise history with 240 career wins and is just 12 wins shy of tying Dan Bylsma for the number one spot. He is coaching the Penguins to their 15th straight playoff berth and they are considered to be a potential contending team. Despite winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, he has yet to win the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. In his most adversity-filled season yet, he deserves it more than ever.