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For better or worse Mike Sullivan is just another coach

July 5, 2019, 2:00 PM ET [359 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
Pittsburgh Penguins Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Penguins have given a contract extension to Mike Sullivan. It will be for four years.

Sullivan has been the bench boss for two Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins. He was slated to enter the season as a lame duck coach. The extension puts that to rest so there will be a lot less drama about WB/S hiring Mike Vellucci who just won the Calder Cup Trophy with the Charlotte Checkers.

I think Mike Sullivan is an OK coach. I think he’s had the luxury of having lineup options that other teams just don’t have with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and formerly Phil Kessel. I don’t think he’s bad. I also don’t think he’s above reproach. The extension is fine. There are no cap implications for hiring or firing coaches. If the team stays stuck in neutral he can be removed with the only penalty coming to ownership in paying out the remainder of the contract (until Sullivan accepts a new position).

Mike Sullivan is going to have to keep evolving as a coach. The team he will guide next year is looking like it will be the worst of his tenure. He has shown in the past that he has a “my way or the highway” approach and it has caused relationships with players to go sour. He is not a great communicator as evidence of Evgeni Malkin being asked to be an intermediary in communicating with Phil Kessel. His inability to work with Kessel has led to Phil being traded. The coach won that battle. I personally think it is harder to replace a point per game talent, but the Penguins did not. Sullivan going to have to show the team made the right choice via his own choices in the upcoming season. It includes how he creates the lineup as well as how he communicates. The hard ass approach is one accepted by players when everything is going right. I have reservations about how well received it will be if the team continues to tread water as the window draws nearer to being fully closed.

Hockey does have certain forechecking and defensive systems you can deploy. They don’t matter as much as they do in other sports. Hockey is controlled chaos. The x’s and o’s inherently don’t have the impact they do in basketball, for example. Player deployment is way more important in my opinion and I don’t think Mike Sullivan separates himself from many of the other coaches in his profession. The key to getting the most out of your players is to put them in the best positions to succeed based on their personal skill sets. It is a fool’s errand to try and force them to play a certain system or role that doesn’t fit. A lot of times the problems come when coaches think they can change a player. The truth is for the most part these players are who they are and playing to their strengths is playing to overall team success. Flexibility is one of the best traits a coach can have.

I don’t think Sullivan did a great job of playing to his player’s strengths and his lineup choices and lack of flexibility damned the Penguins in the playoffs this year. He did not ice his best roster after Game 1. The results spoke for themselves. The team won as many playoff games as the Ottawa Senators and that was after getting what was arguably the most favorable first round matchup of any team in the playoffs.

The fact we were talking about Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel having “down” years is more damning on the coach than those players who have a huge sample of being successful. His choices also tanked the second pairing by stapling Jack Johnson with Justin Schultz. You are talking about 21.8M in cap space being artificially neutered because of deployment issues. If Jack Johnson is still on the roster and he is still being deployed as a top four defenseman then you have to ask some serious questions about the coach’s ability to read his roster and the impacts his deployments have. Again, the coach’s most important role is to place players in spots to succeed. You can’t be blind to the obvious. Sullivan was last year.

The fourth lines of past few years is starting to look a lot more like those of the late Bylsma years. Sullivan’s loyalty to Matt Cullen is starting to rival that of Craig Adams and Dan Bylsma. Guys like Garrett Wilson had a regular shift instead to players with upside like Teddy Blueger. This was a departure from 2015-16 when the Penguins came in waves.

I don’t think Sullivan gets creative enough with his game management. Pairing Sidney Crosby with Evgeni Malkin at 5v5 is a relic of the past. It shouldn’t be. With all the television timeouts and opportunities at the ends of periods we should see that more often. From a logic standpoint it is pretty ludicrous we don’t.

So I’ve listed many concerns about Mike Sullivan as a coach here today, but at the end of the day he shares these flaws with the majority of his peers. There isn’t magical candidate that would come in and have all the answers. The NHL, after all, is not very progressive in how their bench bosses view the sport.

All in all the extension is fine. Sullivan’s flaws and strengths aren’t really different than many of the other recycled options in this league. He’s not great. He’s not bad. He’s just another coach. Even with Rutherford’s faux pas the past two years Sullivan still has one of the better rosters in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang still going strong. When you can arrange the supporting cast to actually support the talented players it should lead to good results. Sullivan is going to have to showcase the ability to do that moving forward. It is imperative with an aging roster and worse depth than he’s been accustomed to.

Thanks for reading!
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