Over the course of the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, a lot of talk has been floating around regarding head coach Mike Sullivan being a candidate for the NHL’s Jack Adams Award for league’s best coach. Given the injury-riddled season the Penguins have had, it makes sense he is near the top of that conversation.
If Sullivan was to win the award, he would be the second Penguins coach to win it, behind Dan Bylsma who won following the 2010-11 season. That year Bylsma coached the Penguins to 49-25-8 record. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both missed half of the season with injuries.
This season is a lot of the same when it comes to injuries for the Penguins — both superstar forwards were injured for a period of time and the team still found a way to win.
As the season goes on, it does not seem like Sullivan will be leaving the Jack Adams conversation any time soon.
At the midpoint of the season, 18 NHL.com writers ranked Sullivan third for the Jack Adams behind Arizona Coyotes head coach (and former Penguins’ assistant) Rick Tocchet and New York Islanders’ Barry Trotz, who won last year. Sullivan had 47 points with three first-place votes. The injuries have continued but the Penguins have found ways to win almost all season. At one point, they were holding onto first place in an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
The NHL.com writers have done another round of voting for Jack Adams, and Sullivan has stayed in the top three. Not only has he survived on the list but he has moved up to first. NHL.com ranked Sullivan first with 72 points and 10 first-place votes. Second and third place went to Columbus Blue Jackets’ John Tortorella and Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Green. The Blue Jackets and Canucks are a pair of teams that have also been battling the injury bug all season but are in good positions to make a push for the playoffs.
The final vote for the Jack Adams Award will be made by members of the NHL Broadcasters’ Association. This midseason recognition for Sullivan puts him in a good position for the final vote.
Handling the Injuries
As mentioned before, the Penguins have been battling injuries all season. Not a single game has been played this season with a fully healthy lineup. Crosby missed 28 games after core muscle surgery, Malkin missed time early in the season with a lower-body injury, and Brian Dumoulin has missed extensive time after having ankle surgery.
The list only continues with Jake Guentzel losing the remainder of his season, Nick Bjugstad only playing in 10 games so far, and Patric Hornqvist missing weeks at a time on multiple occasions. Despite that and many others missing games on occasion to recover, the Penguins have been finding ways to win. Wins don’t come easy in the NHL, but Sullivan has been putting in the work to deploy a winning team. Everyone on the ice is buying into his system.
You can hear it in just about every “In the Room” episode that the Penguins release, Sullivan wants his team to play with a level of urgency and to keep a high compete level to maintain a winning identity. Sullivan has been trying to implement this mindset since his arrival in late 2015. The Penguins have been able to do that every year under Sullivan.
Help from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
With the injuries taking their toll, many faces from the Penguins’ farm team have had to lace up in the NHL. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have sent eight players to Pittsburgh at different points this season. Some have been sent back and forth more than others, like Joseph Blandisi who, before getting traded to the Montreal Canadians, played 21 NHL games this season.
After being called up, the guys have made a useful impact. The eight that have been called up this season have combined to accumulate 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points. Sam Lafferty leading that charge with 13 points in 47 games played. Sullivan, before coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins, was head coach of the WBS Penguins.
He may not have coached the specific players that have been getting the NHL call this year, but Sullivan knows the system and shows great confidence in the called upon players.
Penguins in Net
Goaltending for the Penguins has been an interesting storyline this season with the rise of Tristan Jarry and him fighting for the starting job over Matt Murray. Sullivan has done what he always does and played the hot hand. Whoever is on a better pace will play in the game. This means starting Jarry and giving him more playing time than usual. It was deserved as Jarry’s stellar play earned him a spot in the NHL All-Star Game.
Since the All-Star break, games split between the two goaltenders have leveled out. Jarry has played in 32 games with 20 wins, and Murray has started 34 games and 17 wins. Jarry is still among the league’s best in terms of goals-against average (2.31) and save percentage (.924).
Sullivan Isn’t Perfect
Sullivan may be having a tremendous coaching season, but there have been some bleak spots recently. While the Penguins have been finding ways to win all season, they have recently hit a six-game losing streak, the franchise’s first six-game skid since the 2011-12 season. During the stretch, it can be argued that Sullivan’s deployment of his defensemen has been lackluster.
Putting Zach Trotman in the lineup over Juuso Riikola has been a poor choice and it showed during the losing streak. During the six-game losing streak, Sullivan called Trotman’s number over Riikola and no positives came from that choice. Before being sent back to WBS Trotman would not record a point and ended with a minus-2.
Riikola has been bounced in and out of the Penguins’ lineup since signing with Pittsburgh before last season, and it seemed this year he finally reached some stability in the NHL roster. Sullivan has continued to healthy scratch the Finnish defenseman despite proving he is worthy of playing.
With Dumoulin hurt long term, a replacement was needed for the top pairing with Kris Letang. Sullivan has chosen Jack Johnson; A guy who hasn’t been passing the eye test or looking good statistically this year. Being the man behind multiple own goals, and flubbing pucks in situations that would lead to goals against. In 62 games this season Johnson has only picked up 11 points, not enough for a top-line defender.
Maybe Sullivan sees no other options for Letang’s partner but not taking Johnson off the top pairing after continuous bad play and a couple of own goals, it just doesn’t make sense.
For the most part, Sullivan and the Penguins have been having a stellar season, one that if things don’t crash and burn in the final month, could lead to a Jack Adams Award for Sullivan. The time is now to turn the ship around. Players are getting healthy and should push the lineup back to normal. Other teams in the Metropolitan are causing a tight playoff race, making every game important down the stretch.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.