Penguins’ Mike Sullivan Should Be Jack Adams Award Favourite

Since Mike Sullivan took over as the head coach of Pittsburgh Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, only the Tampa Bay Lightning (291 wins) and Washington Capitals (286) have won more regular-season games than his team (285), and the Lightning are the lone organization to best the Penguins in terms of postseason games played and won.

The two franchises are tied with a pair of Stanley Cups each since 2016, both in back-to-back seasons. Despite his impressive resume, Sullivan has never won the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s coach of the year. This season, the Penguins rank eighth in points percentage despite being without several key contributors. For that reason, among others, Sullivan should be considered the early favourite in the 2021-22 Jack Adams Award race.

Penguins Missing Key Players

According to NHL Injury Viz, the Penguins are fourth in Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP), a cumulative value that sums up the per-game cap charge of any players missing through injury or illness. Only the Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal Canadiens, and Washington Capitals have suffered more according to their CHIP total.

In Pittsburgh’s case, the extended absences of Evgeni Malkin (32 games), Bryan Rust (18), and Sidney Crosby (12) explain their notable CHIP ranking. That trio represents their third, sixth, and highest scorers, respectively, in points-per-game from last season. Few teams could withstand the loss of a single player of that caliber, let alone two or three. Yet, the Penguins sit comfortably in the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot with a 19-8-5 record.

In their stead, players like Evan Rodrigues (second on the team in scoring with 28 points in 32 games) and Danton Heinen (16 in 32) have been forced into more prominent roles in the lineup. That the Penguins are anywhere near contending for the Metropolitan Division or Eastern Conference crown illustrates the breadth of Sullivan’s coaching acumen. They are six points back of the league-leading Lightning with three games in hand, and five points behind the Florida Panthers (one game in hand), who are first in the NHL in points percentage.

Mike Sullivan
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As of this writing, the Penguins have won nine games in a row and are 9-1-0 in their last 10 matchups. If there’s a good time to proclaim one’s faith in Sullivan, it’s while Pittsburgh is the NHL’s hottest team. They’ll have to wait until March to challenge most of their divisional foes, but those games promise to be a collection of heavyweight bouts.

Penguins an Even-Strength Juggernaut

Highlighting Pittsburgh’s health issues this season isn’t meant to absolve Sullivan and the Penguins of subpar play, but to contextualize how impressive their results have been despite the circumstances. Given how much influence a coach has over a team’s performance at five-on-five, the Penguins have looked polished under Sullivan’s reins even with a rotating cast of characters.

The team ranks high in every conceivable possession-based metric. They control the majority of shot attempts (fifth in the NHL in Corsi for %), scoring chances (sixth in SCF%), while also commanding an ample share of expected goals (third) and high-danger chances (fourth). No matter who is available, Sullivan can plug them in and see immediate results, giving them an edge in transforming troubled players.

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Much of their possession dominance is thanks to Sullivan, who implements an honest defensive consciousness to his players. The Penguins are an unassumingly stingy group, which is borne out in the numbers. They concede the second-fewest expected goals against per-60 (2.15 xGA/60) while preventing goals against at nearly the same rate (2.04/60 – fifth in the NHL).

While special teams are usually the domain of assistant coaches, Pittsburgh’s penalty kill is an extension of Sullivan’s focus on fortifying the area around their net. They don’t surrender many quality chances (fifth in PK xGA/60), and their 89.9% kill rate leads the league, setting the all-time record if it holds to the end of the season.

Pittsburgh Penguins Celebrate
The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a goal (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although their impregnable defensive structure is the root of their success, their chance generation hasn’t suffered even without the players who usually pilot the attack. They produce ample opportunities (eighth in xGF/60) while converting on just as many (seventh in goals for/60).

Remember, Sullivan is achieving these results despite playing a chunk of games without two superstars and their supporting cast. Now that Rust has returned and Malkin isn’t far behind, the Penguins could hit new heights in adding their talent to a well-oiled team framework. From whichever angle you critique the team, they are a disciplined club led by a hardened general who knows his way around an often grueling NHL campaign.

Sullivan Shepherding Underappreciated Talent

Including Rodrigues – the NHL’s latest breakout star – Sullivan has guided the growth and development of several underrated talents while seamlessly juggling unpredictable lineup availability this season. In light of the prolonged absence of Sullivan’s workhorses, Rodrigues has moonlighted as Pittsburgh’s first-line center. He’s playing over three minutes more a night than his career average and is seeing time in all situations, including the power play and shorthanded. As a result, Rodrigues is repaying Sullivan’s faith in him in abundance, on track to blow past his career benchmarks in scoring totals and rates of production.

Evan Rodrigues Pittsburgh Penguins
Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Elsewhere, Drew O’Connor has seen his standing rise significantly, tallying five points in 20 games since being called up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. His competitive hunger and tactical versatility make for a persuasive package, and Sullivan hasn’t hesitated to deploy the rookie forward in a variety of situations, including several stints on the power play. Fostering a connection built on trust and mutual understanding is key to modern NHL coaching, and few have mastered the ability as thoroughly as the Penguins’ bench boss.

Also, there’s the running gag that the Penguins have unlocked the secret of player development and are capable of transforming nondescript call-ups into dependable contributors. Rust, Jake Guentzel, and Teddy Blueger are a few current Penguins who have experienced this phenomenon, and much of their NHL success is owed to Sullivan’s tutelage.

Can Sullivan Win His First Jack Adams Trophy?

The ambiguity surrounding the definitions of NHL awards means that it’s difficult to pin down the criteria by which the voting bloc makes their year-end selections. The Jack Adams Trophy winners have been crowned for accomplishing anything from taking what was thought to be a poor team into the playoffs to romping through the regular season with historically dominant outfits. Consequently, Sullivan figures to be one of several worthy Jack Adams candidates come awards time, making it tough to squabble with the eventual nominees.

Still, one thing’s certain, Sullivan deserves a great deal of praise for his stewardship behind the Penguins’ bench, even if the season doesn’t end with any hardware to show for his continued excellence.

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck, and Natural Stat Trick.

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