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Examining the job Mike Sullivan has done this season for the Penguins

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It may not be his best coaching job, but it is still pretty spectacular.

Buffalo Sabres v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins open the week in first place in the NHL’s East Division and are looking like a team that is starting to hit its stride. Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins was probably one of the best, most complete efforts of the season and also one of the most impressive.

Playing on the second half of a back-to-back, against a Stanley Cup contender that rested the day before, is the type of game that you usually pencil into the schedule as a loss. Just because the circumstances are a challenge.

Not only did the Penguins win, not only did they record a shutout against one of the league’s best teams, they completely shut that team down with a thoroughly convincing defensive performance that had to be a huge statement win for the rest of the league. It is probably, to this point, one of the signature games of this season.

It is actually quite incredible to think back to our preseason projections, predictions, and questions and see how this season has developed. Especially with the injury situation the team has dealt with at various times this season. The fact this team has won as many games as it has so far with as many injuries as it has had at various times is a testament to the job coach Mike Sullivan and captain Sidney Crosby have done this season.

Much of the discussion with this team recently has centered around Crosby and the players and how strong the depth has become within the roster. We should also give a lot of credit to Sullivan.

Am not going to say this is the best coaching job he has done, mostly because I am not sure anything can top the 2015-16 season when he took over a team in mid-December that was on the outside of the playoff picture, and when combined with some in-season roster changes helped turn that team into a machine that just steamrolled the rest of the league from January through June to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe if this season produces a championship it can be in that discussion, but even then it might be a stretch. But that is okay. This does not need to be his best coaching job for it be appreciated.

The thing that stands out the most is how much this team has consistently improved over the course of the season no matter who has been in the lineup. They are starting to play with a commitment to defense and the system that we have not seen since that 2015-16 run. Even the 2016-17 Stanley Cup team did not always play at that level or reach that level of dominance.

If you look at the Penguins’ 5-on-5 defensive metrics for the season they are among the top-10 teams in terms of suppressing shot attempts and scoring chances against, while also doing a great job limiting shots on goal. They are completely locking down the neutral zone and starting to really play like you want to see a legitimate Stanley Cup contender play.

This is still probably not enough to get him significant coach of the year consideration because, well, that award has become a bit of a joke in my eyes because nobody really seems to know what good coaching actually looks like. It usually just goes to the coach of a team that had zero preseason expectations, overachieved for the season, almost always on the strength of an incredible goalie performance, and then it repeats the next season. It almost never goes to the best coach or the coach that actually does the best job. Coaches that have talented teams almost always get overlooked or punished. If it did go to the actual best coach, and if it were viewed that way and voted on correctly, you would have to include Sullivan in that discussion for the job he has done so far this season.

While we are on the subject of Sullivan, I want to just focus on a few recent decisions that I think have been positive.

  • Thought that it was important for him to go back to Tristan Jarry in the next game after that third period against New Jersey where he allowed six goals. It would have been remarkably easy to sit him in favor of Casey DeSmith to “send a message” or for a “teaching moment” or whatever else you would have wanted to call it. It was actually more important to show Jarry that you still believe in him and are going to give him a chance to bounce back. That six goal period looked like a goalie whose confidence was shaken, and immediately sitting him down after that could have shaken that confidence even more. Jarry responded in his next two starts by stopping 60 out of 61 shots and recording the shutout on Sunday against Boston. He is the goalie you are going to be counting on to be your starter this season and into the future. You have to let him work through those struggles that might happen occasionally.
  • Have seen Sullivan get some criticism in the games against Boston for intentionally seeking out the Sidney Crosby line vs. Patrice Bergeron line matchup. This is a criticism I do not understand. For me, this matchup seems to be completely sensical, sensible, and smart. Here is why: You want your best line going against that Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak line. That line is one of the best lines in hockey, and I do not like any other Penguins line in that matchup trying to stop them. If anything, I think it probably ends with a lot of goals against. That Bergeron line might run over any other matchup the Penguins could use against them. That is not a knock against the other Penguins’ lines. It is simply a testament to how good that Boston line is. Bergeron and his linemates might neutralize Crosby and his linemates, but Crosby and his line are going to do the same thing the other way. They will cancel each other out. If you let Crosby and Bergeron play each other, you are now putting the game in the hands of your second, third, and fourth lines. That is a matchup that I like for the Penguins, especially when Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup. If your goal is to win games, this is the way to go. Will it impact the individual stats of Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust? Maybe. But you also might still win.
  • Playing Jeff Carter at center with Jared McCann and Jason Zucker has been amazing. That line seems to create a scoring chance every time it is on the ice. Keep it together when Evgeni Malkin returns and make it your difference-making third line that could potentially be this season’s version of the Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel line.