Mike Sullivan was hired in August 2015 to be the new head coach for the WBS Penguins. At that time his hire didn't get much attention. He had just won the 2015 Stanley Cup as a Player Development Coach for the Blackhawks. Before that, his time was spent mostly as a long-time assistant of John Tortorella after he coached the Bruins from 2003-2006.
While his hire as WBS coach didn't get much attention in August 2015, that quickly changed after the Penguins failed to meet expectations in the first few months of the season. Coupled with Sullivan leading the WBS Penguins to a record-breaking start with a 18-5-0 record, and it wasn't that much of a surprise to see Mike Johnston fired and Mike Sullivan replace him.
After Sullivan was promoted, he clearly formulated his plan:
"The challenge is to take a group of great players and become a great team. We’re going to establish an identity that’s clear. We’re going to play to that identity. We’re going to try and have an unwavering focus so that we don’t get distracted. We’re going to try and play that way each and every night."
The Penguins needed that clarity. Lovejoy described the state of the team like this:
"When Mike Sullivan came in, we were sorta lost as a team."
After he was hired as WBS coach, he gave an interview where he noted a few things about the defensemen from the Blackhawks:
"They've got one defenseman that hits," said Sullivan, referring to Brent Seabrook. "Then it's five other guys who don't hit a soul. They stick check. They're smart. They use their brains. They use speed, quickness, and stick skills to win puck battles. The players understand what they are."
Almost a year later, we can apply that quote to the Penguins run that ended in the 2016 Cup win. This graph compares how often all playoff teams hit and got hit that went deep into the playoffs since 2007 (yellow = Cup winners).
Hits for and against per game - Playoff teams 2007-2016, min. 14 GP
Cup winners: yellow
The current Penguins ended up very close to the two most recent times the Blackhawks won the Cup in the "Get hit a lot & Don't hit often" corner. While it can differ, one can assume that the more a team has the puck, the less it needs to hit the other team, and the more it wil get hit from opponents. Here, no Cup winner ended up in the "Don't get hit a lot § Hit often" corner, and most of the Cup winners were on the "Don't hit often" side (exception: the physical LA Kings).
The mobile and not very physical defense was something that Rutherford himself targeted before Mike Sullivan could make his mark as a head coach. Rutherford's quote from back in August 2015 echoes what Sullivan preached:
As the season progressed, the Penguins' identity under Sullivan became more and more clear. Here is how Sullivan described it back in March:
"This is something we've tried to do since I've been here is try to define our identity and what we are as a team. What is our competitive advantage. How do we win? We think our core guys want to play a fast game. They're all good skaters. They can all move the puck. They can advance the puck. They see the ice well. Skating, team speed, puck movement has to be our competitive advantage. That has to be the foundation of our identity. When we play that way and we don't get deterred from any sort of tactics where we're trying to play somebody else's game, I think that's when we're at our best. You can define toughness a lot of different ways. I strongly believe we have a tough team because we play through lots of circumstances and we don't get deterred or distracted from our game. When we do that, we're at our best."
It took some time for everyone to notice that improvement of the Penguins under Sullivan, but the signs were there since the start. We wrote back in January that it looked similar to how the Penguins improved when Therrien was replaced by Bylsma in 2009.
Sullivan's impact goes beyond the Xs and Os that he changed, though it's harder for outsiders to measure.
Sullivan was out of a job after the Canucks fired him on May 1, 2014. Stan Bowman, the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, didn't know him well, but Bowman had received rave reviews from assistant GM Norm MacIver, who had been part of Sullivan's coaching staff in Boston. So the Blackhawks hired Sullivan to oversee player development for the 2014-15 season. Bowman quickly learned how well Sullivan could help cultivate young talent.
"He's got a presence," Bowman said. "Whether it's his voice or he's just sitting down to talk, you've got a good feeling that this guy knows what he's talking about."
The ability to communicate with a player at any level is one of Sullivan's strengths. He's demonstrated that both in the minors and in the NHL.
"You have to establish a relationship with kids so they sort of trust you and buy into what you're saying," Bowman said. "It's a specific skill, and not everybody can do it. That's one of Mike's biggest strengths."
Reminder that this is how players react to him coaching like that. pic.twitter.com/dWZbNTmBHV— m g (@kikkerlaika) May 8, 2016
When Sullivan replaced Johnston, he had already established a relationship with many of the young players that would play a big part in the playoffs. His trust and knowledge of their abilities likely helped him with the decisions to play Rust and Sheary with Crosby and Malkin, or to start Murray ahead of Zatkoff when Fleury got injured.
Very often coaches need time to trust young players, and often prefer veterans ahead of them.
Of course, Sullivan also needed to build a relationship with the older players.
Malkin said. "Mike was nice. He always is. "He never pressures you. It's never: ‘You're a bad player.' It's always support. "In video, he shows you mistakes. But everyone sees mistakes. Me, Sid ... Mike shows everyone you can be better."
And further, when Malkin missed time with an injury, this is how Sullivan reassured him:
"It was a tough time," Evgeni Malkin said of the days leading to his return from an elbow injury that sidelined him for about a month."The team was winning, and some media (said), ‘They can win without Malkin.' "
From inside his office at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Sullivan delivered a direct message to Malkin. It was, as Malkin described, "good to hear."
"He said, ‘You're an important player,' " Malkin said. " ‘Don't listen to the media.' "
Mike Sullivan and his players often used the word "resilient" to describe how they played. Not only did the Penguins overcome many injuries to important players, they also often fought back from deficits.
For fans, the impact a coach has on something like that can be hard to fully grasp. Malkin provided this insight in how Sullivan talked to the Penguins during a game against the Flyers. The Penguins won 4-3 after they scored 4 unanswered goals.
"He came to the team and brought more energy and emotion," Malkin said. "Sullivan is an emotional guy in the locker room too. It's good for us. We were down 2-0 (against the Flyers after the first period) and he came to the locker room and pressured us here, showed emotion and we brought emotion to the game. It's good for the team."
In 12 months, Sullivan won the 2015 Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, then had a 18-5 record in the AHL, and after that won the 2016 Stanley Cup with the Penguins. An impressive run that he'll hopefully continue in the future. His progressive approach to coaching and the talented roster that will play for him puts him in a good position for that to happen.Mike Sullivan's last 12 months: Development coach, AHL coach, NHL coach, Stanley Cup winner.
Feel free to vote in the poll below to rate Mike Sullivan's season. Vote based on your expectations coming into the season, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest.