COLUMN: No One Better For The Job

In a league where job security is a very hard thing to come by, you must win and do so consistently. No one knows more about that over the last calendar year than Mike Sullivan.

As the head coach of an organization that has only seen one coach hold the position for four full seasons (Dan Bylsma), there would seem to be an added sense of pressure to do well. Sullivan doesn’t feel that pressure.

Having players that are some of the league’s most premier would probably weigh heavily on a coach if he wasn’t getting results. Thus, the reason why Mike Johnston was relieved of his duties in December of last season.

As the hiring of Sullivan was announced, any judgement outside of a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins diehard had to be held. Mid-season isn’t the time to hold a search firm for an experienced NHL coach. It was desperation time for the Penguins. They stuck with their guns and hired Sullivan away from their AHL affiliate due to his success replacing John Hynes who took the NHL job in New Jersey prior to the season.

After losing their first four games under the direction of Sullivan, panic quickly returned and fans began believing it wasn’t going to be the Penguins year. A flip of the switch happened on New Years Eve against the Red Wings and everything clicked from their on out. The rest is history. Literally.

Fast forward to the day after Christmas of 2016. The Penguins announced today that they had re-upped Sullivan for three years to stick around until 2019-20′.

In 89 games with the big club, Sullivan has posted a 55-24-10 record including 16 playoff victories last year that amounted to the team’s fourth Stanley Cup. He was the fourth coach in history to win the Cup in his first season.

My admiration for Sullivan runs high. I love listening to his postgame analysis and his pregame interviews with Dan Potash on ROOT Sports before games. His intellect and desire is showcased in his voice. He’s the type of person who could take the most vaguely worded question and give and an answer that even the most minor hockey fan can appreciate.

His team gravitates to him and has a very mutual respect for what he does.

It’s very obvious that he pushes his players hard but they respond because they know that there is always another level to hit. When this team plays at that level, they’re the toughest team to beat in hockey and I have no problem saying that. We saw it during the playoffs last year when they defeated some of the NHL’s best teams. We’ve seen it at times this year as well.

His team’s will to stay in the game even when presented with a two goal deficit is something he’s been lauded for. 25% of his victories as the head coach have come from two goals down. Someone out there will try to spin that as a negative and say that the Pens shouldn’t have been down in the first place. I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it again. What matters is Sullivan’s ability to keep his players confident that they can turn any deficit into, at the very least, a point in the Metropolitan Division standings.

A deciple of Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, Sullivan had to play against Penguins like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a consistent basis when he helped coach the Rangers in New York. He learned their style seeing them as often as they did. He’s applied those lessons to coaching those guys now.

Sullivan lets his players have their freedom. He trusts that they will do the right things, show up on time, be ready to practice or play, be held accountable, etc. That’s part of being a coach. You’ve got to have the respect of your players. You’ve got to be brutally honest because that’s the only way for someone to improve. It’s all about constructive criticism. Sullivan does it in a respectful way but he makes sure you understand what you did wrong and how you can improve it.

If I was one of those NHL players on the ice and not someone writing about the happenings of the team, he’s the type of coach I’d want. The Penguins may have found their long term solution. The league is a revolving door of head coaches but I expect this coach to be around this team for a long time.

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