The Pittsburgh Penguins announced a pretty significant piece of news on Tuesday when they announced the signing of head coach Mike Sullivan to a new three-year contract extension.
This news was greeted with two different schools of thought.
1) That’s a pretty good idea! Great job!
2) Well, that seems weird given that they have not won a playoff series in four years, where is the accountability? Why not change anything? Why keep doing the same thing over and over again?!
While I hear what group two is saying, and while I agree that sports is ultimately a business about winning, I put this in the same category as re-signing Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, etc.
Is this person responsible for the postseason shortcomings or the reason they are not winning more? And is change going to get you an upgrade or get you closer to a championship, either now or in the future?
Or are you simply looking for a change for the sake of making a change just because you have not won?
I realize group two is not necessarily looking for a coaching change RIGHT NOW (though, maybe somebody out there is. There is always somebody looking for a coaching change), but I feel like the Penguins removing even the possibility of a change at any point in the near future is the dealbreaker. Like they are satisfied with the status quo, not looking to get better, and all but removing Sullivan from anything that might even resemble a hot seat.
I am not sure anybody is actually satisfied with the recent playoff results, and coaches get fired with years remaining on their contract all the time, but again the question has to be asked: Is this particular person the reason the team is not winning as much as it would like?
Sullivan, like all coaches, has his blind spots, but if you were to put together a ranking of the best coaches in the NHL where would you realistically place Sullivan?
I am not going to say he is the absolute, unquestioned BEST coach. But I think he is in that range. That top-five area. And I think his overall resume, as well as the fact the team still wins a ton of games no matter how many injuries they deal with during the season or what flaws they might have, justifies that very solidly.
So the question goes back to: If you have a good coach, why wouldn’t you want to keep the good coach for as long as you possibly can? The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. Have you seen some of the coaches that have been hired over the past year or so? How many would you take over Mike Sullivan right now? How many would you realistically say would get more out of this team?
I get that the playoff losing is frustrating, but I still do not think the blame rests on the people they have brought back and extended. And if they are not the problem, why would you change them? Change for the sake of change doesn’t do anybody any good, and is more likely to set you back even more.
I still think the Penguins have some real problems and questions that need to be addressed, so I am not going to sit here and say everything is perfect. The goaltending situation HAS been the single biggest problem the past two postseasons, and bringing back the same duo there, without even a change to the backup, is something that should be talked about critically.
The bottom-six, which is an essential part of winning in the playoffs, looks thinner than it has in a couple of years. That, too, is something we should be critically looking at.
But if players like Kris Letang, and the head coach, are not the biggest problems.... why look to replace them? Especially when you are almost certain to downgrade that spot?
And I really am not interested in “looking toward the future” right now, either. That seems to be the other thing that this always comes back to, that in a few years the Penguins are setting themselves up for a rough run when the older core players retire. The harsh reality is that is going to happen no matter what you do this offseason. Letting Malkin and Letang go, not committing to Sullivan or perhaps even replacing him in a year or two, is not going to slow that process down. If anything it is going to speed it up.
If you were willing to let the core free agents go, and do not want to commit to one of the league’s best head coaches, then you might as well admit you are rebuilding and trade Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. But nobody really wants to do that, either. Because if you do the former, and don’t do the latter, you are basically taking a half measured approach to it and trying to play both sides of it. That never works, either.
The Penguins needed to pick a direction this offseason, trust it, and stick with it.
Either go all in with the core players they have now and keep trying to win with them, or dump it all out and really, truly, start over. Anything else would have been half-assing it.
They chose to go all in with what they have. Given how good the team still is, that is probably the best decision.