The game’s longest-tenured coach is staying right where he is. Last week, head coach Mike Sullivan and the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to a three-year contract extension that will keep the two-time Stanley Cup-winning bench boss in the Steel City through the 2026-27 season. During an offseason that also saw general manager (GM) Ron Hextall re-sign franchise icons Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Sullivan’s extension demonstrates that he has confidence in him to lead the current group and in his commitment to both the franchise itself and its culture of success.
Sullivan has since become a de facto member of the team’s core, overseeing the most successful era in franchise history. Penguins management and ownership have demonstrated their commitment to the same success by extending him a contract that would see him totaling ten years of service with the club.
Sullivan’s Accomplishments Warrant New Deal
Sullivan arrived in Pittsburgh in 2015-16 after previous head coach Mike Johnston was fired, the latter posting a 58-37-15 record through 27 games. He had previously coached the Penguins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In just a partial single season, he guided the team to a 19-5-0 record and a winning percentage of .792. Prior to this, he had served as head coach in the Boston Bruins organization with both the AHL and NHL clubs. He saw immediate success in his first season in Boston, going 41-19-15-7 (in the pre-shootout era) as well as serving as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks, and New York Rangers.
In his first season in Pittsburgh, Sullivan rescued the team and went 33-16-0 before capturing the Stanley Cup, beating the San Jose Sharks in six games. In doing so, he became just the sixth coach in NHL history to win the championship after being hired mid-season. He is also the only Penguins’ bench boss to lead the team to back-to-back titles, winning it the next season by vanquishing the Nashville Predators. With the 2017 championship, he became the only American head coach to win multiple Stanley Cups.
Sullivan’s successes only grew as he helmed the Penguins. On Dec. 16, 2017, he reached the milestone of 100 career wins as his team skated to a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. On Oct. 17, 2021, he became the winningest head coach in franchise history, earning his 253rd career win over the Chicago Blackhawks. By sheer numbers alone, he has since become the best coach in the history of the Penguins and has been recognized and subsequently rewarded by management.
Sullivan Has Shown He Can Handle Adversity
During the 2021-22 season, the Penguins seemed headed for disaster, as Malkin, captain Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust had all been missing extended time with injury. To that point in the season (Jan. 2022), Malkin had missed 32 games, Rust 18 games, and Crosby 12 games. Yet, the team soldiered on and found themselves safely entrenched in the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot with a record of 19-8-5. He kept steering the team in the right direction and was able to find regular roles for players like Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen, who ultimately thrived and had the best seasons of their respective careers.
Even after the Penguins’ 2021-22 season ended in comparative disappointment with a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, the players didn’t waver in their commitment to winning, a value instilled in them by Sullivan. He views himself as the embodiment of the winning culture present when he arrived and has said that:
“I think I had the luxury of inheriting a standard of excellence, a certain culture that has been developed in Pittsburgh. I feel I need to be the custodian of that. I just believe in being honest and candid with our players, I think an important aspect of what we do is building relationships… When relationships grow and develop over the course of time they should get stronger.”Mike Sullivan on his coaching philosophy (From ‘Penguins, coach Mike Sullivan agree to 3-year extension,’ Will Graves, The Associated Press, 30/08/2022).
Sullivan’s philosophy seems especially important now, as the Penguins find themselves at a crossroads. The players who have defined their franchise for the last 15 years are getting older, and they haven’t advanced past the first round of the postseason in five years. Despite the uncertain future, both the players and Sullivan believe the championship window is still open, as he has faith in the core and understands the effort necessary to produce results in today’s NHL.
If this offseason has demonstrated anything, it is that the Penguins remain committed to winning with the roster they’ve got, and an extension for Sullivan doesn’t just keep the core together; it solidifies him as part of it.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.