Yesterday was an eventful day for the Penguins, as Mike Johnston and Gary Agnew were relieved of their coaching duties and Mike Sullivan was brought in from Wilkes-Barre to be the new head coach. In all honesty, Mike Johnston had to go for a litany of reasons, and the sooner that was done the better. The season can still be salvaged and I for one support Rutherford in moving on when he knew he had to. I also don't blame him for being straightforward - if anything, honesty is in short supply in hockey front offices these days.
Moving on. Mike Sullivan is the new head coach, so let's meet the guy who is going to hopefully right this ship and avoid the proverbial iceberg. Native of Marshfield, MA, Sullivan played 11 NHL seasons as a checking line center, mostly spent in Calgary and Phoenix. Upon retiring in 2002, he quickly turned to coaching and accepted the head-coaching gig with the Bruins AHL affiliate, Providence Bruins.
In his first and only season as the baby Bruins head coach, he compiled an excellent record and was quickly hired by then-Bruins GM Mike O'Connell to coach the big club. Before you knew it, just 18 months removed from being an NHL player, Mike Sullivan was the Bruins head coach going into the 2003-2004 season. Talk about a fast ascent, right?
In his first season with the Bruins, Sullivan had an impressive year and the Bruins won the Northeast Division with 104 points, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The next season was wiped out due to the lockout, and the Bruins opted to part ways with many of the veterans during that year. Starting the 2005-2006 season, the team had a completely different makeup and finished near the bottom of the division. It was then when the Bruins fired O'Connell and brought in Peter Chiarelli, who came in and relieved Mike Sullivan of his coaching duties. It was a scenario that was eerily reminiscent of the situation Dan Bylsma was in after Ray Shero was fired.
Following the 2006 season, Sullivan served as an assistant coach on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team and as head coach of the U.S. national team at the 2007 World Championships in Russia. He spent the ensuing decade attached to the hip of someone we have come to know and love, John Tortorella, as his right-hand guy in Tampa, New York and Vancouver. He even served as head coach for the Canucks during the 6-game span when Torts was suspended for trying to fight Bob Hartley outside of the Flames dressing room. That was a fire tire season for the Canucks, after which the coaching staff was not retained.
Not everyone was a fan of the Tortorella-Sullivan combo. Roman Hamrlik complained that they ran practices like a boot camp. Alex Edler didn't think Sullivan helped his development by constantly berating him over mistakes. Larry Brooks suggested that Sullivan alienated more Rangers than Torts himself.
Whether players loved his drill sergeant demeanor or not, Mike Sullivan was hired as player development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks and served as the advance scout during the playoffs. By the end of the 2014-2015 season, he was on the ice with the Stanley Cup.
After John Hynes was hired by Ray Shero to coach the New Jersey Devils, WBS Penguins had an opening and hired Sullivan to be their next head coach. He set the tone early in training camp, by attempting to institute fast-paced play while maintaining structure. He wanted to have them play with speed and creativity, and the results are impressive thus far, with the baby Pens sitting on an excellent 19-5 record and 38 points atop the Atlantic Division.
For the end, hear the man talk about player development himself. Here is Mike Sullivan's presentation at USA Hockey High Performance Symposium in May 2015. Also, Jonathan Bombulie caught up with him yesterday just as the news of his promotion was made public. What he had to say resonated well with me - be honest, provide structure, don't be a high-risk team, but let creative players be creative and go with their instincts.
If he stays true to these principles, he has a chance to make the most of a unique opportunity to coach some of the best players in the world. Let's be honest, while we all think every coach should be so lucky to be offered this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, this is by no means an easy job. I think Mike Sullivan has what it takes. He didn't send Roman Hamrlik perfumed thank-you notes for working hard in practice, to be sure, but we all learn as long as we live and I'm sure he's figured out some things along the way. Good luck and welcome back to the big show, Mike Sullivan!