One of many crucial decisions that Ron Hextall will face as Penguins general manager this summer is what to do with his coach. Last night on Sportsnet, league insider Elliotte Friedman opined that he “expects” Mike Sullivan to be back in Pittsburgh next year in a fairly brief note. Friedman didn’t expand much on what led him to come to that opinion, but he’s not drawing a guess out of thin air on the subject.
Officially, the Pens have not made any announcements about who their coach will be next season. but Sullivan is still under contract to be the coach. The team has completed all their obligations for this season and have scattered for the summer.
Sullivan has been the Pens’ coach since December 2015. He won the Stanley Cup in each of his first two seasons, but has also endured first round exits in each of the last three seasons.
With such poor playoff results lately, the general replaceability of NHL coaches and the fact there is a new GM and executive staff has led to some natural speculation that perhaps the time was aligning for a new bench boss in Pittsburgh.
However, many of those factors might not be in-line with Hextall’s perspective. Since Hextall was hired, Sullivan helped the Pens to a 31-11-2 record, despite a litany of key injuries that never relented. Pittsburgh won the division. Sullivan may have been inherited by Hextall, but a lot of what he has shown has given good reason to endear himself to the new manager.
With the wounds still fresh, few want to hear or can accept that the Pens had a really good process and plan of attack in the playoffs but got let down by their goaltending, yet...The Pens had a really good process and plan of attack in the playoffs but got let down by their goaltending.
There are dozens of other factors involved in the outcome of a playoff series, and little details and decisions by Sullivan can always be nitpicked or Monday morning quarterbacked with better outcomes thanks to the benefit of hindsight. No one is perfect, Sullivan has his quirks and perhaps weaknesses or oversights like any human being, but he is also an excellent hockey mind and coach who helped deliver a division championship this season.
It’s also not like Sullivan has lost the attention or ears of the players.
“He does a great job for this group, has for many years,” Brandon Tanev said on Friday. “I was thankful enough to come to Pittsburgh last year and be with him and see the work he puts in every day... He’s a great individual, an even better coach. We’re lucky to have him in Pittsburgh.”
Should Hextall reach the same conclusion, he can check that off his list and move onto other matters. The Pens still have to deal with what to do with one year remaining on Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang’s respective contracts — and doing nothing and letting the contracts play out until next offseason is a choice that could be in play as well. The Pens will have further steps to re-tool the roster for next season across the lineup. Will it be a lineup that Mike Sullivan gets the opportunity to preside over?