Mike Sullivan had a clear message when he was introduced as Pittsburgh Penguins head coach on Dec. 12, 2015. That day, he promised he would never waste anyone’s time.
When it comes to winning championships, Sullivan’s words held true. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup about seven months later before repeating the following season. Now, entering his seventh season with Pittsburgh, Sullivan could be considered the best coach in its history.
Sullivan has been criticized, as most coaches are. Most of that criticism has come recently, with the Penguins failing to win a playoff series since 2018, but he remains one of the better coaches in the NHL. The upcoming season could be pivotal, as another early exit could leave Sullivan in an unenviable position as the Penguins try to maximize what remains of Sidney Crosby’s prime. But before that hypothetical scenario comes to pass, Sullivan’s tenure in Pittsburgh deserves a retrospective.
Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in Dec 2015, immediately losing his first four games by a combined score of 15-4. The first win under Sullivan came on Dec. 21, a 5-2 home victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But the Penguins still struggled through the first month under new leadership, going 6-7-4. A four-game win streak from Jan. 21-Feb. 2 finally changed things. Pittsburgh won 27 of its final 37 games that season, including 14 of its last 16.
Sullivan implemented a style reliant on unrelenting speed. Carl Hagelin, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 16, was a primary catalyst to this transition, joining center Nick Bonino and right wing Phil Kessel on a third line that would become known as the ‘HBK Line.’
Despite goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray missing the first two games of a first-round series against the New York Rangers, the Penguins advanced past New York in five games. They defeated the Washington Capitals in six games, the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven and the San Jose Sharks in six to win the Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh was 50-21-11 the following season but arguably less impressive in the playoffs. Still, they got through the first two rounds on the back of a career-defining stretch from Fleury, capped by a 2-0 win against the Capitals in Game 7 of the second round. Murray took over in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, winning seven of 10 starts on the way to another championship.
The Penguins have made the playoffs in each of their six seasons under Sullivan, but because of high expectations, that isn’t considered enough. With that, Sullivan has been questioned the past three seasons, as Pittsburgh has failed to make it out of an opening-round series.
After winning the back-to-back titles, the Penguins were eliminated in another second-round matchup against the Capitals, the eventual champions in 2018. The series was competitive, with Pittsburgh eliminated in a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 6. So, while disappointed, fans weren’t going to blame Sullivan.
The three seasons since have been different. Sullivan has arguably been outcoached by New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz (who also bested Sullivan as Capitals coach in 2018) twice, as the Islanders swept the Penguins in 2019 and eliminated them in six games this past season.
Sullivan, rightfully, received less criticism after the 2021 series. That loss was mostly caused by a lackluster showing from goalie Tristan Jarry. But there were still some that blamed Sullivan for sticking with Jarry or keeping the lineup virtually the same throughout the series.
It didn’t help that the second series loss against the Islanders came one year after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. After what was viewed as an impressive July 2020 training camp, Pittsburgh was eliminated in four games of a best-of-5 series. In the deciding Game 4, the Penguins almost seemed disinterested in a 2-0 loss.
That loss led then-general manager Jim Rutherford to fire assistant coaches Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin.
Making Something Out of Nothing
Even with the lack of recent playoff success, the job Sullivan has done just to get the Penguins into the playoffs shouldn’t be overlooked. Obviously, a lot of the credit should go to the players, but with the amount of injuries Pittsburgh has faced the past few seasons, Sullivan has done a masterful job of getting the most out of his lineup.
This past season, second-line center Evgeni Malkin missed about half the season after sustaining a knee injury on March 16. Malkin required surgery that will keep him out, at least through the upcoming training camp. Forwards Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust were the only two Penguins to play all 56 games.
Pittsburgh went on to win the MassMutual East Division.
Before losing to the Canadiens last postseason, the Penguins had an improbable run to a 40-23-6 record despite Crosby missing 28 games, Malkin sidelined for 14 and Guentzel being out for the final 30. Those are just some of the more notable injuries Pittsburgh has dealt with.
Sullivan has still found a way for Pittsburgh to succeed. Whether it’s getting four points (two goals, two assists) in eight games out of a guy like Radim Zohorna this season or having fourth-line center Teddy Blueger contribute 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 43 games, Sullivan has a tendency to get the best out of players that could be outmatched on paper.
Where Sullivan Ranks
When next season begins, Sullivan will join Eddie Johnston as the only men to coach the Penguins for seven campaigns. His 425 games coached is second in Pittsburgh’s history behind Johnston (516).
It likely won’t take Sullivan long to move past Dan Bylsma for the most wins by a coach in team history. Bylsma won 252 games in six seasons as Penguins coach; Sullivan is second with 251. His .547 win percentage is second behind Byslma (.551) among Penguins coaches that have been behind the bench for at least 300 games.
If the Penguins lose another opening-round series, it is possible general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke at least consider a change. But at this point, it seems likely Sullivan will be the first coach to reach eight seasons with Pittsburgh.
Wes Crosby is a freelance reporter, covering the Penguins for THW and serving as NHL.com’s Pittsburgh correspondent since 2013. He has also covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates for the Associated Press since graduating from Duquesne University in May 2013. During his tenure with NHL.com, Wes covered the Penguins’ two most recent Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017.