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Looking back at the first six years of the Mike Sullivan era

Sunday marked the six-year anniversary of his hiring as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

It was six years ago Sunday that the Pittsburgh Penguins put an end to the Mike Johnston era and began the Mike Sullivan era.

The Penguins are in a very different place today than they were at that time.

Back in December of 2015 the Penguins were on the outside of the NHL playoff picture and stumbling through a phase of mediocrity where expectations plummeted. The year before the Penguins needed a win in the last game of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot, that was followed by a First Round exit. Then they came out to start the next season by struggling to score goals and just looking like a team whose best days were behind it. They were not winning like they were used to, not scoring goals like they were used to, and the best players were playing the least productive hockey of their career.

So less than a year-and-a-half after hiring Johnston, then-general manager Jim Rutherford made the change to hire Sullivan.

It was a huge moment for the organization.

The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup that season, won it again the year after that, won a playoff round the year after that, and have been one of the league’s best teams ever since.

Since being named head coach of the Penguins on Dec. 12, 2015, Sullivan has helped guide the Penguins to the top of the league.

Their 265 regular season wins since then are the third-most in the NHL, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals.

They have averaged 3.29 goals per game, the second most in the league behind only the Lightning.

Both special teams units are in the top-10 league wide.

Their 75 playoff games and 41 playoff wins are both second most in the league, trailing again only the Lightning.

They have been by pretty much every and any objective measure one of the best teams in the league.

It has also been one of the most successful eras in the history of the franchise with Sullivan doing some incredible coaching jobs in individual seasons.

Obviously the 2015-16 season was a huge turnaround as the Penguins did a complete 180 from where they were prior to the coaching change. There were major changes to the roster to go along with the change behind the bench, but Sullivan’s “just play” mantra and the systematic and stylistic changes introduced by the new coach all worked in perfect unison with the roster changes made the Penguins an unstoppable force.

It carried over to the Stanley Cup playoffs that season, the next regular season, and the next Stanley Cup Playoff appearance when they completed their back-to-back championship run.

But the past two seasons have been fantastic coaching jobs as well given the challenges the team has faced on the injury front.

Nobody expected the Penguins to win the East Division in the shortened 2020-21 season, and so far this season the Penguins have fought through some major injury issues to still maintain a 100-point pace entering the week. It should be enough to put Sullivan in the discussion for the Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s coach of the year, which is pretty much the only thing Sullivan has not won in the NHL.

His resume as a whole also made him the head coach of the 2022 USA Olympic Team.

At this point it is hard to argue against Sullivan being the best coach in franchise history, isn’t it?

Scotty Bowman is the best coach that ever coached the Penguins, but he was only in Pittsburgh for two seasons. It is sorta like how Paul Coffey might have been the best defenseman to ever play for the team, but Kris Letang is still the best defenseman in franchise history if you are putting together that sort of ranking. Longevity and overall impact matters in that discussion.

Dan Bylsma (still underrated and under appreciated in my eyes) has a far better regular season winning percentage, won three division titles, a Jack Adams Award, and a Stanley Cup, but Sullivan has the better postseason mark and has the back-to-back Stanley Cup title going in his favor. He is also coaching Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang in the twilight of their careers as opposed to their absolute peaks.

No matter who you like at the top of that list (Sullivan, Bowman, Bylsma, or whoever) there is no denying the job that Sullivan has done so far, and continues to do. He is clearly one of the best, most respected coaches in the league right now and currently doing one of his best coaching jobs given the injuries that have been a constant all season.