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Playing Favorites: Sullivan’s personnel choice can be confounding

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It’s sometimes tough to keep up with the choices Mike Sullivan is making

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest and most visible responsibilities an NHL coach can make is his decisions on lineup choices and allocation of ice time. To use the old Bill Parcells adage, while in hockey the general manager “shops for the groceries” of the roster moves, it’s the coach who has to “cook the dinner” as far as putting it all together.

Daniel Sprong could be used as a poster boy in the difference of opinion between general manager and coach. GM Jim Rutherford has always been a fan, sometimes to the detriment of the future -- like when he kept Sprong in the NHL for 10+ games in 2015-16, despite Sprong not being used much by the coach or likely staying around forever, thus starting the clock that’s made Sprong (now just 21-years old) already waiver eligible. Sprong, a right winger, is stuck behind veterans on the right side, so coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t have much need for the youngster at this point. After a few healthy scratches, rumors of an impending trade are flying around.

Jamie Oleksiak is another fascinating example. Rutherford gave Oleksiak a three-year contract worth $2.1 million per season over the summer. That contract is the type of statement that the general manager was showing confidence in the player to continue to grow and possibly even become a #4 or #5 type of defenseman who could earn a lot of minutes and in a pinch cover in a top-four role. Sullivan hasn’t been as keen on Oleksiak, twice making the player a healthy scratch so far this season. Sullivan obviously has his reasons – Oleksiak WAS on the ice for four even-strength goals against in a row before his scratching. But there’s another example of something you don’t really want to see as a fan and that’s either the coach and GM not being on totally the same page, or worse a young player not living up to expectations and failing to live up to the bet the GM made on him to contribute.

On the flip side of the coin, coach Sullivan seems to favor other players despite not much reason to do so. 42-year old Matt Cullen would be at the top of the list so far, playing all the games and sometimes even as a center. In 15 games Cullen has one goal (which came late in a 9-1 blowout win, no less) and two assists this season. His 40.1% Corsi For rate is the worst on the team, and among the worst in the entire league so far this season among players with 100 minutes so far.

Sullivan clearly trusts and favors a guy like Cullen to make the next play more than a player like Sprong, but should he? There’s other factors at play like the center capability (though it could be argued Cullen isn’t looking very capable) and PK responsibility/role, but the coach is at least willing to dismiss ugly stats for a vet while pushing out a young player whose stats aren’t good either.

Defensively, it’s a similar situation with a confounding bit of coaching logic going on right now. Oleksiak sat on Saturday night as a healthy scratch so Juuso Riikola could play. Riikola with a 40.6% CF% is among the worst defenders in the whole league in that category. Riikola has also only been on the ice for just one goal for at 5v5 in eight games. Riikola was great in camp, and naturally still adjusting to the NHL in his first games and weeks in North America, but based on the performance we’ve seen there’s almost no real, good reason to play Riikola over Oleksiak at this point.

(Well, there is a real reason why, and that’s because Sullivan wants to.)

Anyways, the Trib cited about Oleksiak as to why he’s been scratched:

“I think when Jamie gets himself in trouble, he tries to do a little bit too much,” coach Mike Sullivan said earlier this season. “We talk a lot with him about his positioning and staying behind the puck and joining the rush, not leading the rush.

“I think (assistant coaches Jacques Martin and Sergei Gonchar), they spend a lot of one-on-one time with him, trying to help him with the different aspects of his game and the subtleties of his game. When Jamie plays a quiet game, I think that’s when he’s at his best.”

Couldn’t that also apply to Jack Johnson who has been on-ice for a team-high 15 ES goals against? Sullivan didn’t think so there, recently making an impassioned defense of the veteran as to why goals against weren’t necessarily the fault of the player in the coach’s perspective.

Nothing here is really meant to be overly critical of Sullivan. What a coach chooses to do, or how he hands out lines and ice time is the easiest decision as a fan to harp on. Also probably the easiest to criticize if and when the team loses a game. And, to be sure, Sullivan is considering how to manage a team through a long season and taking in a lot more factors than Corsi For% and 5v5 goals against as he sets up a strategy for the next game.

However, it is interesting to see habits develop. Sullivan, like almost every coach ever, seems to develop interesting habits an trends. We saw it with seemingly useful players getting scratched and falling out of favor with the coach and end up traded (Ian Cole). We’ve seen a guy like Conor Sheary average 20 goals a season in two years as a Penguin fall to being used on the fourth line after a slump and then get traded away. Sullivan (and/or Rutherford) have elected to hang onto fourth line players in the past who aren’t likely offer a lot (Tom Kuhnhackl, Carter Rowney, etc), which could be stretching into Cullen.

There’s also been young players leaned on and developed into solid NHL performers (like Brian Dumoulin and Jake Guentzel) under Sullivan. Dominik Simon has gotten a good opportunity lately and made a lot of it.

So it isn’t as if all his decisions and tendencies have been questionable or wrong or bad, by any means. Ideally, Sullivan continues to push the right buttons and pile up wins and get the Pens to a place where they make the playoffs comfortably and look to peak at the right time yet again. That’s certainly still very much possible, if not likely.

An ongoing story to follow will remain how Sullivan handles players like Sprong and Oleksiak on one side of the coin, and Cullen and Johnson on the other side which will go a long way to determining making optimal decisions for the team. Almost every NHL coach in history has confounded and frustrated fans at times with what he does (or doesn’t do) in terms of line/team building, and so far in 2018-19 with the treatment of players like Oleksiak, Sprong, Cullen and Riikola, Mike Sullivan has been no different in that category.