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Mike Sullivan owes his player a better effort

August 6, 2020, 12:53 AM ET [203 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
Pittsburgh Penguins Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins might be their biggest obstacle to overcome at the moment. A man accustomed to being heaped with praise and talked about as among one of the better coaches in the league can’t get one of the easiest decisions in the sport right. He can’t bench one of the most consistently terrible players of the analytics era. He just won’t do it. It has cost the team dearly. What’s obvious is obvious.

Jack Johnson is bleeding goals when he’s on the ice! It’s true. This isn’t hyperbole. Don’t’ take my word for it

I repeat, this isn’t hyperbole. Read those. It is indefensible. It is so obvious even the national broadcast in Canada is getting in on the action with Jim Hughson throwing shade towards Johnson. Remarking, "Jack Johnson is a -3 tonight". This while Johnson was playing the puck near the offensive zone. It was Hughson's polite way of saying this guy is complete rubbish tonight.

The rubbish is definitely causing other parts of the lineup to stink. Johnson’s deployment (or the need at all to deploy him) is hurting the Penguins mightily. On merit he shouldn’t be given a jersey, but he does. However, we know you can lose your jersey on merit because Sullivan admitted as much after Game 3. Jared MCann was a healthy scratch. So the coach really can bench players for performance related reasons? Yeah, just not THAT player.

“Well it isn’t like Justin Schultz is helping him”

Nope, he isn’t and he deserves his own share of criticism, but we know Schultz in a sheltered bottom pairing role can work. We also know it doesn’t matter who you play Johnson with. His partner is doomed. Nobody can escape, not even Kris Letang.

Mike Sullivan gave Johnson a full serving of the best Penguins defender for weeks. Johnson rewarded his coach by mushing Letang and causing his CF% and xGF% to plummet to levels we rarely see with him. You can’t hide this guy! He will absolutely drag the entire operation down with him. There is nothing you can do. He’s a 14 year veteran of the league and he’s been bad forever. The sample is real and it is spectacular, but not in the Jackie Chiles way.

I mean is there anything left to say about the biggest self-own in hockey?

Yeah, actually there is. How about the need to baby sit Johnson (and Schultz) cost them valuable offensive opportunities tonight. The need to “protect” those two players had a direct impact in how Mike Sullivan deployed offensive zone faceoffs in the third period. He knew the Johnson/Schultz pairing wasn’t going to give him anything he needed in that moment. He also knew playing that pairing in their own end had a great chance to give Montreal a two goal lead. The direct and real consequence of trying to minimize the risk of Johnson/Schultz came at the expense of using Crosby or Malkin’s line. To take things further it cost them the chance to *gasp* get both Crosby and Malkin on the ice at the same time. The Sportsnet crew didn’t let Sullivan off the hook either as they questioned why they both 87 and 71 weren’t out on the ice.

Sullivan’s gamble was to instead let his worst players gobble the offensive zone start. He would rather take a chance on Sid and Geno generating everything on their own (hey they might) than refuse Johnson/Schultz the most favorable kind of zone start to try and hide their awfulness. So Johnson/Schultz got the faceoff in the offensive zone, after an icing, and with tired players. The kind of shift start you dream of for your best players.

All the pieces matter. It is all intertwined. You can’t be this negligent without consequence. The bad players being bad were driving coaching decisions in a pivotal Game 3 tonight (and in many prior games). It’s a big deal. It is literally taking beneficial opportunities away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

A five game series doesn’t lend itself a lot of wiggle room to overcome self-inflicted errors. The Penguins are officially pushing the limits with their bungling of the game roster. One more bad bounce at the wrong time and their season is kaput.

The season isn't over, but it sure would be cool if the coach gave his team the best chance to advance by playing the best 18 skaters. Dan Bylsma was raked over the coals for this same exact thing. We are watching it in real time again with Sullivan. Make the easy call, Mike. Your players deserve better. Bench the guy.

Thanks for reading!
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