CH Column: How Is This Team Different Under Sully?

On December 11th, 2015, the Penguins dropped a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings, bringing the Penguins to a 15-10-3 record; good enough for 5th in the Metropolitan Division and out of the playoff picture. General Manager Jim Rutherford decided at this  point to end Mike Johnston’s tenure as the head coach of the team. There were a couple names being thrown around as a replacement for Johnston, including assistant coach Jacques Martin. Rutherford instead took a familiar route that the Penguins took in the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup season and hired Mike Sullivan, the head coach of the minor league affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The move was made with some optimism from the fan base, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the Mike Johnston era had drained some water from the proverbial glass half-full. I’m an optimist when it comes to the outlook of the teams I cheer for and follow, but I had just gotten to the point where I just wanted the Penguins to be fun to watch again. I didn’t care about Stanley Cups, division titles, Hart trophies, or any other accolade. I just wanted games to be fun again. Mike Johnston’s system not only crippled the talent on this team, but it was the most boring style of hockey I’ve watched in my entire life. It made the New Jersey Devil’s neutral zone trap look like a trip to Disney World. Johnston’s system took away one of the team’s strongest assets: speed. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are all at their best on the rush, putting the defense on their heels.  Johnston’s system was all about moving through the three zones as a team and supporting each other. While it had its strengths, especially in the defensive zone (the team was allowing 2.39 goals against per game under Johnston this season), it had many weaknesses in the neutral zone and offensive zone. Johnston wanted shot volume, but disregarded shot quality. Most shots were from defensemen on the point or from forwards way outside the slot and because the team couldn’t establish a good forecheck, offensive zone pressure was minimal (the team scored 2.39 goals per game under Johnston). Johnston’s system wasn’t a good fit for this team. I’m not saying it can’t work in the NHL, it just didn’t work with the Penguins. It especially didn’t work with Crosby. Under Johnston, Crosby registered 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in 28 games, a whopping 0.68 points per game. Crosby was also a minus-6.

Enter Mike Sullivan. HCMS brought a new attitude to this team. He also implemented an up-tempo style, giving the chance for players to work creatively, especially in the offensive zone. He wanted a hard working team, in all phases of the game. He wanted the team to push past adversity and be resilient. And while it didn’t start out that way when the team went 0-4 in his first four games as head coach, after some time, changes seemed to take place, especially offensively. After the 0-4 start under HCMS, the Penguins are 25-10-5. The team is scoring nearly a goal more per game, and Sidney Crosby has turned into the best player in the world again (of course, he never stopped being the best in the world). Under Sullivan, Crosby has 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists), scoring 1.33 points per game, and is a plus-21. I always believed that Crosby’s dreadful start was more attributed to the Johnston system. Crosby didn’t forget how to play hockey. His performance under Sullivan proves that. Oh, and since the coaching change, Crosby leads the NHL in scoring.

The most impressive thing I’ve taken away from the team under Sullivan is their resilience. They never break or give up when down in a game. There have been several games where they’ve fallen behind 1-0 or 2-0 early, and have ended up coming back, sometimes even winning. The team knows how to score again. The players seem to respect and respond to Sullivan more. Just watching this team each game is the only way to see that something special is going on.

The additions of Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin (thank you GMJR) have given huge jolts to both the offense and defense. Sure, there’s still work to do. They’re not a perfect team by any means, but they’ve gotten to a point where the fight they put up makes me think they could beat any team in a best-of-seven series.

The playoffs are looming. Ten games remain. The Penguins are finding their stride at the right time. We can hope they continue to trend this way. And they wouldn’t be where they are without Mike Sullivan steering the ship.


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