The Penguins Catch-22 with Mike Sullivan; Why It Matters (2024)

There is no shortage of Pittsburgh Penguins fans who would like to warm coach Mike Sullivan’s seat to an uncomfortable degree. After a pair of seasons without a playoff berth and no playoff series victories since 2018, any coach would be in hot water, and the spate of teams this season that found success with new coaches only adds to the desire.

The team’s performance this season, or more specifically, the lack thereof on many nights, would often point a finger straight at the coach. Still, the Penguins’ situation is far more complex and just a bit different than the garden-variety team hoping to reverse their recent fortunes.

There is no question that Sullivan and the Penguins’ core three—Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin—have grown close. The players support him without equivocation despite the growing lack of on-ice success, and Sullivan has placed far more trust in them than a coach would with ordinary players.

Any coach, new or existing, would place a great deal of faith and credibility in the Penguins’ core three. In discussing the matter after The Final Word on WXPI Sunday night, I compared Sullivan to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher’s last couple of seasons, which included a Super Bowl win and a mediocre disappointment.

A coach will treat veterans of that status differently. Every coach would, but there is a line between respect and deference. Cowher probably crossed it in his final season. I know where Penguins fans stand with Sullivan, too,

And therein lies the Penguins’ Catch-22. A new coach could come in and grab the team by the shoulders and demand a whole new game. The coach could shout or quietly explain, but as long as the Penguins’ core is together, it will remain their team. If they’re not happy with the changes, the coach will quickly lose the room.

It would be the same for every sports team in every league. Perhaps you remember the friction with former coach Mike Johnston, whose shortlived Penguins tenure included the most serious “Crosby is unhappy and could leave” rumors.

Any new coach will pay the core the same respect.

Coaching, Changes

Rick Tocchet of the Vancouver Canucks and Kris Knobloch of the Edmonton Oilers made changes this season and in the playoffs. Knoblauch’s ability to change the mindset in Edmonton was the biggest catalyst for Edmonton rallying from a betting long-shot at mid-season to the Stanley Cup Final. Tocchet also transformed the thinking and the style of the Canucks.

Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer inserted Dallas prospect and AHL MVP Mavrik Bourque into the Game 6 lineup Sunday. It was a bold move in a potentially deciding game that helped Dallas outshoot Edmonton 35-10 (but Dallas lost 2-1).

Would Sullivan boldly make the types of changes that the others made? He certainly used to make those big changes, and his tactical adjustments were a big reason the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals en route to the 2017 Stanley Cup.

It’s amazing how smart coaches can appear with a good team and how dumb they can appear with a bad team. It seems no one notices changes when you lose unless they’re the cause of the loss.

Examples, Please?

Sure, how much worse could the Penguins’ situation get, right?

One prime example of how much worse it could get also involves Sullivan. Vancouver was tired of losing playoff series despite a plethora of talent and wanted a culture change. Following their successful stint with the New York Rangers, head coach John Tortorella and assistant coach Sullivan took over in 2013-14.

Tortorella immediately targeted the aging Sedin twins, as he’s known to do with star players who don’t play to his style. See also Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Johansen. As an assistant coach, Sullivan was in the middle of the battle.

Tortorella and Sullivan quickly lost the team and lasted just one season in Vancouver. The Canucks finished first in their division the season prior and second in the following season but finished fifth under Tortorella.

The coaches didn’t respect the room, certainly didn’t read the room, and accomplished nothing. A new Penguins coach could come in and upset the apple cart with any one of the three core members or all three at once, but most likely, things would get worse, not better.

No, any new coach would also pay the same respect to Sidney Crosby as Sullivan or any new coach would quickly lose the team.

It’s why president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas had no incentive to put coaching change on his summer to-do list, at least until Dubas feels Sullivan follows Cowher across the line in being too deferential.

It’s the perfect Catch-22.

The Penguins Catch-22 with Mike Sullivan; Why It Matters (2024)
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