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A (belated) look at Mike Sullivan’s coaching anniversary of the Pittsburgh Penguins

Mike Sullivan is already one of the most tenured coaches of the Penguins and currently in the NHL, believe it or not.

New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Thought about this the other day when former Penguin Stanley Cup foe Peter DeBoer got the boot out in San Jose — isn’t Mike Sullivan up there now all of a sudden in the coaching longevity?

And he is! Only five coaches (Jon Cooper, Paul Maurice, Peter Laviolette, Jeff Blashill, John Tortorella) have been head coach with their respective teams longer than Sullivan has been with the Penguins. And yesterday, December 12th, marked the fourth anniversary of Sullivan getting promoted from Wilkes-Barre to take over the NHL Pens.

To say there was skepticism about Sullivan would be an under-statement. He was seen as a failed coach, a mis-guided thinking acolyte of Tortorella, bound to bring all the negative, surly qualities of his mentor with none of the success.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Sullivan coach game No. 332 with the Pens last night (time flies, eh?) and has a 192-102-38 record. He had a .637 points %, fourth best entering this season in the league behind Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, St. Louis’ Craig Berube and Cooper.

Sullivan is currently 3rd all-time in Pens history in games coached and games won. He would be passing Dan Bylsma in 70 more games, early next season. Bylsma is the only coach in franchise history to start and complete five full consecutive seasons, Sullivan is working on his fourth full season.

And while if you write enough takes on the internet, you’re bound to have a bad one. But try to find a worse one than some jabroni named Brett Cyralis of the New York post who on 12/23/2015 tied Sidney Crosby into the whole mix, in a spicily titled article “Sidney Crosby is a coach-killer — there, we said it” (h/t to Jedidah for saving the receipt)

There is a crisis in Pittsburgh, which is not a shock to anyone who has watched the NHL this season.

The whirlwind of criticism has included almost everyone, from the top of the organization to the bottom. Yet no one seems to be looking at the eye of the storm. Because there resides Sidney Crosby — the Golden Child, scorer of the Golden Goal for Team Canada, the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the Heir to the Throne of Greatness.

Crosby the Untouchable.

Well, enough.

He has been the constant, hovering presence in the ouster of four coaches who have stood behind the bench since the Penguins took Crosby with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft. It’s gone from Eddie Olczyk to Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma to Mike Johnston and, now, for some reason beyond logic, Mike Sullivan was hired to replace Johnston on Dec. 12. Sullivan, the former Rangers assistant under John Tortorella, is as out-of-touch a selection as could have been made. Just wait until Crosby gets to know him a little better.

Because what Crosby wants, Crosby gets. When Sullivan rubs him the wrong way — it’s not an “if,” it’s a “when” — the indelible No. 87 will start sulking, just like he did at the end of Therrien’s run and the end of Bylsma’s run and the end of Johnston’s run. Great players lead by example, and when Crosby wants change, it’s clear. There is a fine line there between being a demanding competitor and being a coach-killer.

Woooo, mercy! Well, Crosby hasn’t killed Sullivan yet (how kind of him) and funny enough for Sullivan to be called “as out-of-touch a selection as could have been made” in December, about six months later in June the only thing Sullivan would be touching was the Stanley Cup. And then touching it again the following June.

This take, though historically bad, wasn’t alone. Many predicted doom and gloom would follow. On this anniversary of Sullivan’s hiring, it’s important to look back and see just how much he’s helped settle the waters of what was a pretty turbulent time in Pittsburgh history. The Pens were reeling after hiring an ineffective NHL coach in Mike Johnston. Jim Rutherford was still new and putting his stamp on the team — Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel were acquired by this point, but he needed a capable bench boss to steer the team to success.

Sullivan’s been all that and more for the Pens. In a world where hockey coaches have frequent turnover, Sullivan’s been able to stay fresh and relevant. He has the team playing some of their best hockey process-wise this season since taking over, despite a mountain of important injuries.

It feels like in this day and age of coaching young players who mostly have long-term contracts guaranteed and with some no-trade protection to find a way to resonate the message and get results. Perhaps the most difficult challenge that costs good coaches their jobs all the time in the name of change and getting a fresh voice around the team. Sullivan’s strength, to date, has been being able to continue to get his message through, despite at this point really being an aged coach as far as the lifespan of most NHL coaching gigs go.

The union of Sullivan and the Pens has worked out spectacularly for both parties, with each hoping for more success could be in the cards as well. Either way, on the occasion of his coaching anniversary, both he and the team have come a long ways in the last four years.