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2020-21 Season In Review: Mike Sullivan

How well did the Penguins’ bench boss navigate the COVID-infused season?

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Mike Sullivan

Position: Head Coach

Birthdate: February 27, 1968 (53)

Birthplace: Marshfield, Massachusetts, USA

Date hired: December 12, 2015

Playing career: 1991-2002 (San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Arizona Coyotes)

2020-21 Season Record: 37-16-3, first place in East Division

2020-21 Playoff Result: Lost in First Round to New York Islanders in six games

Contract status: Signed a four-year extension in July 2019; contract runs through the 2023-24 season

Story Of The Season

With each passing year, we get further and further away from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup wins of 2016 and 2017. And at the start of every subsequent offseason, many begin to wonder if the players still buy into the core principles of Mike Sullivan’s coaching philosophy.

“Have they tuned him out?” “Are the stars doing their own thing?” These are common questions that are routinely asked amongst Pittsburgh fans and media members.

NHL coaches have a similar shelf life to milk. They’re fresh and tasty in the beginning, but for whatever reason, quickly hit their expiration date and are tossed out for another coach, often a recycled face who’s been in league coaching circles for a long time. It’s become a staple of modern day NHL coaching and a bit of a running joke as well.

And in Mike Sullivan’s case, having been the head honcho since December 2015, and not won a first-round playoff series since 2018, is it fair to say that his days with the black-and-gold are numbered heading into 2022 under a new GM?

Well, not so fast, my friends. Sullivan led his squad of flightless birds through another injury-riddled season, with the added stipulations brought on by several COVID-19 protocols. Oh, and remember his longtime general manager left town right at the beginning of the year, too. Add all of this up and you’d be well within your right to assume that the Penguins would flounder in this makeshift East Division, leading to the dismissal of Sullivan and a restart at all levels of the organization.

Instead, the Marshfield, Massachusetts man calmly navigated these shaky waters and helped guide his team to an impressive 37-16-3 record and a division championship, the team’s first since 2013-14. For his efforts, Sullivan also finished fifth in Jack Adams Award voting, with Carolina Hurricanes coach, Rod Brind’Amour, taking the honor as the NHL’s best coach for the 2021 season.

By February 16, the Penguins held a 7-6-1 record. Nothing impressive about that at all. Fast forward to March 16, and the team propelled themselves to an 18-10-1 record, a clear progression in the win column. One month after that, by April 17, Pittsburgh had amassed a 28-13-3 record. Several multi-game win streaks helped the team finish with the best record in their division. There were four separate win streaks of at least four games.

Pittsburgh was rounding into championship-caliber form as the season drew to a close. They finished their truncated schedule by winning five of their last six regular season contests.

But, as has been the case in two of the last three seasons, the Penguins found themselves on the losing end of a playoff series against their division rivals, the New York Islanders.

Regular season success is great, and shouldn’t be ignored, but let’s not kid ourselves: the Penguins are judged based on what they do in the playoffs. You can say that is a harsh way to judge any team, and you may be right, but it’s been that way for a long time.

Ideal 2021-22

Mike Sullivan’s short-term future looks pretty safe. Both Ron Hextall and Brian Burke seem to have confidence in the former NHLer heading into next season. With a return to pre-COVID normality on the horizon, the Penguins will likely use a wait-and-see approach to begin the 2021-22 campaign.

Sullivan’s name has also been floated around as the potential head coach of Team USA’s men’s hockey program next year. Whether or not we see Olympic participation from the NHL is a different issue altogether, but Sullivan’s stock is clearly still high.

Question To Ponder

The arrow is still pointing up on Sullivan, but what if things don’t go as smoothly as everyone hopes come late November/early December? How quickly would Hextall react to a bad start out of the gate for his team? While history has shown that the former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender likes to take a more methodical approach to his dealings as GM, Sullivan is still a Jim Rutherford era hire. Would Hextall and Burke be more inclined to bring in their own guy?

Mike Sullivan owns the distinction of being the first coach to win back-to-back championships in the salary cap era. Winning Lord Stanley’s silver chalice is no easy task. To do it twice in two years is a legendary feat given the restraints of the salary cap.

Will he have the chance to earn ring number three while the championship window remains open? Or will Sullivan’s tenure in Pittsburgh reach a poetic end if he is to be replaced during a midseason coaching shakeup?

The “break glass now” scenario is obviously an extreme one, and it would take a monumental collapse for Sullivan and the Penguins to part ways, but with the volatile lifespan of NHL coaches, you never know when an unforeseen losing streak could result in your name, and your championship accomplishments, being on the chopping block.


How would you grade Mike Sullivan’s 2020-21 season?

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  • 41%
    (232 votes)
  • 42%
    (240 votes)
  • 11%
    (65 votes)
  • 3%
    (17 votes)
  • 1%
    (6 votes)
560 votes total Vote Now