Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is having himself a fine season. The team has been attacked once again this season by the injury bug and the head coach has found a way to lead his team to a 30-14-3 record, heading into Saturday night’s action. Considering the number of questions that surrounded this Penguins roster, the general manager leaving abruptly and the constant names on the injury report, Sullivan has been the pillar his team’s needed for some stability.
There’s no doubt about it, coach Sullivan deserves to receive some Jack Adams votes for coach of the year, and I may even go one step further and say he should be finishing in the top-2 of voting this season.
The Penguins sit only five points back for having the best record in the entire NHL and they have done so by committee. Sullivan and his coaching staff have been challenged immensely this season to find the right combination of players each and every night for their lineup, and his line juggling and motivation tactics have seemed to work in the team’s favor every time.
Let’s take this into consideration, the likes of Kasperi Kapanen (twice), Michael Matheson, Evan Rodrigues, Juuso Riikola, Marcus Pettersson, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino (three times), Jared McCann (twice), Jason Zucker, Mark Jankowski (twice), Sidney Crosby, Colton Sceviour, Mark Friedman, Teddy Blueger, Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Tanev (twice), Tristan Jarry and Frederick Gaudreau have all spent time on an injury report. Over 60 percent of the Penguins roster has been injured at one point or another and the team has a .670 winning percentage. Let that sink in for a minute.
You can also throw in the fact that the Penguins goaltending has been shaky and a touch inconsistent at times this season, and Sullivan has done a great job in ensuring both netminders are seeing some minutes and given time to get their games back on track. Jarry has played 32 games, meanwhile backup Casey DeSmith has started 15 and appeared in 18, and is sitting with a 10-6-0 record heading into Saturday’s action. Show me a good coach and we’ll show you quality goaltending, and Sullivan has his tandem to thank. However, a lot of that comes down to who to start when and how to ensure both goalies have confidence heading into the playoffs. Coach Sullivan does a great job communicating with his goalies, and rarely sends them flying under the bus.
Coach Sullivan is One of the Best Communicators in the NHL
One of his biggest attributes is his communication skills and a lot of that comes down to Sullivan’s experience playing in the league. “Sully” played over 700 games in the NHL spanning over 12 seasons, and while his numbers never jumped off of the page, he was considered a “glue-guy” that was lower on the depth chart, but always found a way to make an impact on the game. Kind of fitting considering his coaching style, and it makes a ton of sense why he’s been a successful head coach. He understands how to connect to his players and what buttons to press at the perfect time.
A perfect example of how Sullivan has been able to connect to his players is an instance back in February that saw Kapanen benched for the third period of one game because of his work ethic and decision making, to then scoring the overtime-winner the following game. It’s these type of in-game adjustments, demotions and lineup tinkering that propels Sullivan from a good coach to a great one.
It’s an Art to Always Find the Right Mix
Given the number of injuries this season it’s been tough at times for the Penguins to ice a legit top-six forward group. And while the likes of Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust have been lighting it up this season, it’s because the gamble Sullivan took to take Rust off of Malkin’s wing from last season and move him up to Crosby. This, in turn, showcased some serious chemistry between Malkin and Kapanen — once Malkin returns to the lineup, this could provide the Penguins with one of the best second lines in the league, alongside Jason Zucker or Jared McCann. The forward group has certainly been pounded with man-games lost, and Sullivan and his coaching staff have done a great job ensuring to get some offense from their defense as the Penguins are near the top when it comes to production from the back end.
Coach Sullivan has his biggest test coming up as the Penguins are getting healthier leading into the playoffs. It’s going to be up to him to create the best lineup possible to provide balance, production and a tough team to play against in a playoff series. It’s been a decade since a Penguins head coach won the Jack Adams Award, but Mike Sullivan deserves to be recognized as one of the league’s best behind the bench.