When the dust settles, and the Sidney Crosby—Evgeni Malkin era comes to an end, December 12, 2015 should be a day that is remembered for a franchise-altering change.
Yes, it has been five years to the day that Mike Sullivan was named head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, bringing an end to the short-lived, but failed tenure of then-head coach, Mike Johnston.
The Penguins, just a measly 15-10-3 at that time, lacked direction, a true identity, and GM Jim Rutherford, never the one to sit on his hands, decided enough was enough.
Johnston departed Pittsburgh with a 58-37-15 record, and one playoff series to his resume, a 4-1 series loss to the New York Rangers. More on them later.
With this mid-season coaching change made, the Penguins soon transformed their roster, trading away Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley just two days later, shipping David Perron off to the Ducks for Carl Hagelin, acquiring defenseman Justin Schultz, and calling on the services of young, hungry minor leaguers like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Matt Murray.
Sullivan would finish out the 2015-16 regular season with a record of 33-16-5.
The Pens would once again meet the New York Rangers in the playoffs, with the memories of the previous year’s disappointing run still in the minds of many Pittsburgh players. Thanks to a heroic effort from “Mr. Game 1” Jeff Zatkoff, the Penguins would outmatch the Rangers in just about every statistical category, disposing of the Blueshirts in five games.
And let us not forget the contributions of the now famous “HBK line,” comprised of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. This three-headed monster combined for 56 total playoff points, becoming the highest-scoring line of the eventual championship-winning squad.
Speed and skill was the name of the Penguins’ game, and they rode it all the way to the finish line.
On June 12, 2016, Sullivan became just the sixth head coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after being hired mid-season. The Marshfield, Massachusetts native and his men defeated the San Jose Sharks in a six-game series to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. Sullivan joined both Scotty Bowman (1992) and Dan Bylsma (2009) as the third coach in franchise history to win the Stanley Cup following a mid-season coaching change.
It is pretty crazy to think about how fast those five years have gone by. And in hindsight, the roster and scheme changes the Penguins made helped propel a fledgling team, that many began to count out, into a two-year run of postseason glory.
Sullivan’s tenure as head coach will go into the record books for good reason, and while it seems like all NHL head coaches run their course eventually, for now, Sullivan remains firmly entrenched as the bench boss heading into 2021.