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In benching Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan is wielding the biggest power he has: ice time

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Looking into the anatomy of a benching

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching in the modern day is always an interesting topic. Being a head coach, even a good one, doesn’t necessarily mean much job security in a league like the NHL where the voice of the man behind the bench is seen as replaceable. As the old saying goes, you can’t fire 20 players but you can fire the coach.

And these days, players have instagram accounts and a lot of them have long guaranteed contracts. They have a CBA where they get travel days off and built in extra days off too. Gone are the days of Herb Brooks bag skating his team until they’re exhausted. (Which wouldn’t even be smart if old Herbie was in the middle of a four game in six day stretch, but I digress).

So it’s interesting to see how Mike Sullivan handles the Penguins and how the players respond. One such instance played out.

The crime

Jake Guentzel is the Pens’ prize hockey boy right now, no doubt about it. His 13 goals goals are third on the team this season, behind only Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. Guentzel’s 28 points in 33 games have him in prime position to cash in with a big contract extension next year.

But he made a really bad play last night, choosing to force a cross-ice pass near the blueline at the Pens’ offensive zone over toward Bryan Rust, instead of making a safer, smarter play to make a sure thing pass to Crosby on his right. The result was the puck was intercepted and the Ducks scored on the rush to tie the game.

The result ended up being devastating, as the Pens two goal lead had disappeared and momentum went to Anaheim, who would score the go-ahead goal soon after. It’s not Guentzel’s fault Pittsburgh lost last night, but it is his responsibility to make a better play.

“It was a turnover and it ended up in our net,” Guentzel said after the game. “I’ve got to be better.”

The result

After that play, Guentzel was benched. Lines were shuffled and Derick Brassard replaced him on Crosby’s wing.

Sullivan knows dishing out ice time is still one of the last power points a coach has.

“Sometimes,” Sully said, “the biggest hammer a coach has is ice time.”

“There have been situations over the last little while where the coaching staff has [benched players]. That’s not something that this coaching staff likes to do,” Sullivan said. “Certainly we have to start heeding the lessons if we’re going to get more consistent results.”

The reconcilation

Of course as any parent or coach knows, you don’t want the punishment to be permanent, but it’s always a little bit awkward to shift gears and let ‘em out of the proverbial doghouse.

Luckily for Sullivan, he had a built-in reason to do so, as Guentzel has been a member of the Pens’ #1 power play group with Patric Hornqvist out. Rather than shake up what they had practiced with, Sullivan still gave Guentzel his normal spot with that group, and the player played more inspired hockey and earned some more time later in the game by taking a few good shots that almost scored.

For Sullivan, it was a message sent and for Guentzel it was one definitely received, and one no doubt the rest of the team bore witness to as well.

“We’ve got to be more disciplined in that area and we need to put pucks behind them and generate offense different ways. Our team, of all teams, I think we learn it the hard way.”

Guentzel wasn’t able to atone for his mistake on this night, but at the end, the coach was happy with the player’s response.

“I thought he made better decisions,” Sullivan said about Guentzel’s return to the ice. “And he played hard. I knew he would.”

Coaching in the modern day NHL is a difficult job with a ton of decisions that will be nit-picked and second guessed and Monday morning quarterback’ed to death, but Sullivan chose his spot to insert some accountability. The team didn’t make any further egregious turnovers like that again. Surely they’ll cough up pucks again, but hopefully the lesson won’t have to be repeated.