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Nowhere To Go But Up

Penguins started the season with a disappointing 15-10-3 record, new Head Coach Mike Sullivan has an opportunity to do what Dan Bylsma did in 2009.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford didn't have much choice but to announce the firing of now former Head Coach Mike Johnston.

That's life in the NHL as a coach.

The day you are hired, next day you are waiting to be fired.

A 15-10-3 (33 points) record in a weak Eastern Conference that has the team in 9th place after having to clinch 8th place last season on the final game of the regular season was plenty enough of a reason to make a change.

Winning in Pittsburgh is never enough, not with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the team.

Fair or not, Johnston just didn't win enough or look good doing it when they did. Make no mistake about it, these are the Pittsburgh Penguins, style points count.

While plenty of blame lies with Johnston's personnel decisions with game-day lineups, how deep forwards had to play into the defensive zone, and a power play that was giving away momentum far more often than it took advantage of the opportunity to score a goal, the issues run far deeper than simply thinking Johnston was in over his head.

When does Morehouse, Lemieux and Burkle get blame?

Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse on the announcement of hiring Rutherford last summer, "It became clear to ownership that Jim’s experience and reputation as a strong and steady leader made him the clear choice for what we have to accomplish."

It was so clear, Rutherford was the team's third choice for the job.

That much was clear with Pat Brisson turning down the opportunity before the process even got started with the 29 other applicants and let's not forget the insanity that was offering a three year deal to Pierre McGuire, which he thankfully turned down due to wanting a five year deal.

It wasn't outrageous for McGuire or anyone for that matter to demand a 5-year deal. The Penguins situation cried for a General Manager to come in and change the organization. That kind of change doesn't happen overnight, yet Morehouse and ownership refused, opting for the "stability" of Rutherford.

Instead, Morehouse's Penguins have no stability.

What exactly was Morehouse, Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle thinking with Rutherford?

Rutherford was viewed as a long shot during the GM search. It wasn't because of his lack of knowledge, it was for his lacking of winning.

Over the twenty years as the GM for the Hartford/Carolina franchise, his teams had five playoff appearances and one Stanley Cup.

Is it stability that on the very day the new GM is introduced, he says "I would suspect my term here is two or three years."

Who says that?

Much worse, who signs off on that?

Who hires a teacher with Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster?

After years serving as Ray Shero's assistant GM, Jason Botterill must have been wondering about his future with Bill Guerin added to the front office team.

And what exactly is Bill Guerin's role on this team? He was hired to be a liason between management and the locker room.

Did it really take a year for Guerin and Rutherford to deduce the stars weren't happy with Johnston's coaching style?

Just as Morehouse had a clear choice for the GM, Rutherford followed suit mangling the original coaching hire as he had offered the position to Willie Desjardins and after being unable to get a contract done, Desjardins went home to Vancouver and took the job there.

What quality head coach candidate was going to take the Penguins job with an already established dead man walking in the front office? There's no stability in the coaching profession, Desjardins wasn't going to take a job with that two or three year term over the man's head who hired him.

"I know my experience will be able to help this organization." - Jim Rutherford

That experience left the Penguins short a defensemen for five games last season because of his salary cap mismanagement. He did nothing to address a defense that saw the defections of Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin, and Christian Ehrhoff.

Rutherford tried to publicly take some responsibility on Saturday by saying, "I didn't get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end."

The Staff

Sullivan gets a job that he can never turn down but one has to wonder, why is Sullivan being forced to have Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin as his assistants?

A coach needs to have his guys, not your guys or Mario's guys.

Forcing assistants on a coach didn't work well with Johnston as he and Tocchet weren't exactly hitting it off.


Sullivan inherits a team that is lucky to be in the playoff picture.

While a lot of attention has been on the team's lack of scoring, let's call it what it is.

Fleury has saved this team.

Penguins are 28th in the league giving up 31.8 shots against per game.

If Fleury has a below average season and we're looking at three or four more losses.

What's Next

Sullivan says he's an honest and straight forward coach that hopes to inspire guys to play a certain way. Right now, we don't know what the Penguins are because of a roster loaded with four lines that haven't scored but a current identity of a team that didn't know what it wanted to be on the ice.

The team got a good start learning how different Sullivan is compared to Johnston by starting his first practice with some 3-on-3, then having the losing team do push-ups.

The remainder of practice was stressing breakouts, big surprise right?

After practice, Sullivan on the breakouts, "I think it is an important aspect to being a good team. It is important to come out of your end zone as clean as you can, as efficient as you can."


Sullivan is going to challenge this team because that's who he is and what this team needs.

The team is only a point back of 8th place New Jersey and if Sullivan can get the Penguins back to playing a speed game by taking advantage of their four lines, the team has nowhere to go but up.

If the team doesn't react, it should force ownership look at Rutherford and Morehouse but that puck likely gets iced down the rink for the next ownership group.

Personnel Changes

Rutherford made it quite clear of his disappointment with the former head coach wasn't playing Daniel Sprong. Johnston wasn't fired because of it but it clearly gave Rutherford something to further attach to his assessment of the team's direction under Johnston.

Sprong needs to play in the next ten games in order for Rutherford to properly evaluate the long-term impact of the young player staying on the team or go back to a bad junior team in Charlottetown.

It is doubtful Tocchet will recommend any changes to the Crosby (Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett) or Malkin (David Perron and Phil Kessel) lines but changes are needed in the bottom six.

The problem is, they are top heavy at right-wing with Patrick Hornqvist and Eric Fehr ahead on the old depth chart.

Johnston for some unknown reason had Fehr playing left wing with Nick Bonino and Hornqvist over the last few games. A position that doesn't give Fehr an opportunity to succeed and ignored the fact Sprong can play the position.

On Monday night, we'll see if Sullivan received any advice from those around the team and gets Sprong into action on the left-wing with Bonino and Hornqvist.

Such a move might hurt Fehr's ego but it doesn't hurt playing with two good fourth liners in Matt Cullen and Sergei Plotnikov.

Long-term, Rutherford has to address the team's desperate need for a puck-moving top four defensemen. He'll open up a job for Fehr by using Hornqvist to get that player. Then look for Sullivan to recommend his guy from Wilkes-Barre.

It would be surprising if Rutherford made a deal prior to the new year as the NHL's trade freeze runs from December 19th to the 27th. He'll want to get some time to monitor how the club reacts to Sullivan's approach.

As for the defense, good luck coach.

Letang could miss two weeks with an undisclosed injury and you've got a GM who wants to see Adam Clendening on the ice. We could tell you what the logical next move is but on a team that has made a routine of the illogical, let's just hope Sullivan was serious about the importance of the breakout and Rob Scuderi is up high in the press box enjoying those pulled pork nachos at Consol Energy Center.