Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made a bold move one year ago today, one of the most brilliant of his managerial career.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, but Jim Rutherford had a pretty straightforward rationale behind the decision he made one year ago today, one which turned out to be one of the most brilliant of his managerial career. It was on Dec. 12, 2016 that the Pittsburgh Penguins GM stopped jamming a square peg into a round hole and fired his coach Mike Johnston, replacing him by promoting the team’s minor league coach Mike Sullivan.
“Our farm team in Wilkes-Barre was overperforming and the Penguins were underperforming,” Rutherford said. “So it was actually a pretty easy decision.”
Turning the bench over to a former journeyman fringe player worked out really well the previous time the Penguins had done it, when they gave the job to Dan Bylsma, and really, they had nothing to lose. But since then, the Penguins have soared, winning the Stanley Cup last spring based largely on the speed and puck pursuit system Sullivan implemented and the way in which he juggled players on the team from the superstars to role players.
And it’s interesting to note that going into tonight’s home game against the Arizona Coyotes – Guaranteed win night? Anyone? Anyone? – the Penguins have played exactly 82 regular-season games, the equivalent of a full season, with Sullivan behind the bench. In that time, they’ve compiled a 51-23-8 record for 110 points, which would have put them second overall in the NHL last season. Combined with the playoffs, the Penguins are 67-31-8 under Sullivan.
Sometimes, coaches can get a little self-important and sometimes, they can just get in the way. The best ones know how to get the most out of their players and how to avoid overcoaching and allowing their charges to play to their strengths. That is something Sullivan has mastered with the Penguins. Rutherford lauds Sullivan for his ability to communicate to players when he needs more from them without alienating them. He’s done it with everyone from Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to Conor Sheary and Olli Maatta. “He’s not afraid to tell a player he has to be better,” Rutherford said. “And he gives them a chance to do it. He gives them more than one game to do it.”
Case in Point No. 1: Sullivan’s handling of the Penguins goaltending situation. Is Marc-Andre Fleury thrilled that he’s been relegated to No. 2 at this point in his career? Not at all. But he’s handling the way he is because he’s first a classy person and second because Sullivan has been very good about it. Don’t forget that Sullivan made his most risky decision last spring in the Eastern Conference final when he started Fleury ahead of Matt Murray for Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury’s positioning on a couple of goals was a little wonky and the Penguins lost in overtime. With their season on the line, Sullivan turned to Murray and he delivered the series and the Stanley Cup.
Case in Point No. 2: Phil Kessel, a player Rutherford describes as, “one of the best playmakers in the league.” When Sullivan joined the Penguins, Kessel had just nine goals and 17 points in 28 games and was struggling playing with the Penguins top players. Then in mid-March, he put Kessel on a line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin and that ‘HBK Line’ was born. Even though that line has not been a staple this season, Kessel has developed from a player who was expected to score goals to an outstanding playmaker. Under Sullivan, Kessel has 26-46-72 totals in 82 games.
Rutherford said he keeps notes on people he meets in hockey, both the ones he likes and the ones he doesn’t. He was always impressed by Sullivan and was on board with the Penguins hiring him to run their minor league team. Once the Wilkes-Barre Penguins got off to a 12-2-0 start under Sullivan, Rutherford was comfortable he would have his man if the Penguins floundered under Johnston, which they did. Rutherford was willing to give the job to Sullivan, a person he thought had become typecast as second banana to John Tortorella after being an assistant to Tortorella in Tampa Bay, New York and Vancouver.
“I think sometimes guys get attached to certain guys and he had kind of become attached to Torts,” Rutherford said of Sullivan. “And then he maybe gets viewed as a guy who can’t do it on his own. But I always liked him and you get to like a guy even better after a start like that.”
With Sullivan at the helm, expectations remain high for the Penguins, who go into tonight’s game with five straight wins, but aren’t even the hottest team in their own division, never mind the league. But the Penguins stand as good a chance as any team to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in almost 20 years. One year after hiring him, they certainly know now they have a coach who can lead them there.