In announcing a four-year contract extension for coach Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford thrust a delicious paragraph out into the hockey world, ripe for dissection:
“To win back-to-back Stanley Cups in this era speaks volumes of him as a coach,” Rutherford said. “His instincts in managing the inter-workings of our team both on and off the ice has been impressive.”
The first part is pretty straight-forward: Yes, Sullivan is the only coach in the salary cap era to win two straight titles and that is, indeed, quite an accomplishment. But the second part, about the inter-workings of the team? Well, that’s interesting.
It’s no secret that the Penguins had a failure to communicate between Sullivan and right winger Phil Kessel on their hands and the situation was not going to get better. With Kessel traded to Arizona recently in a package that saw center Alex Galchenyuk head to Steeltown, it is now abundantly clear who Rutherford sided with, if it hadn’t already been so before.
Because make no mistake: the Penguins gave up the best player in that deal. But if Kessel wasn’t fitting into Sullivan’s structure and the wins weren’t coming anymore, something had to give. It’s usually easier to just fire the coach then trade away a point-per-game player, but Rutherford and the Penguins made the decision to not only retain Sullivan, but to give him long-term job security.
Pittsburgh is in a fascinating position right now, because the Penguins still employ two of the best centers in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They also have a young goaltender with two Cup rings in Matt Murray, who unfortunately has also been bitten by the injury bug often and is looking more mortal to shooters than he did as an unknown star not so long ago. The defense is a little dodgy and the depth up front looks a little better right now compared to the end of the season, but it’s not great. All those years of going for a title depleted the prospect pipeline and the 2019 draft was the first good one Pittsburgh had in many years.
But you can’t fold up shop, right? Crosby is still too good, as are Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. So you hold on to what you know and hope the subtraction of Kessel makes a positive difference. Sullivan brings the consistency and familiarity to steer the ship and potentially wring one more great playoff run out of the Crosby-Malkin epoch.
It’s also worth noting just how volatile the coaching market is. We love the idea of new blood coming in, but it was pretty muted this summer. Ralph Krueger and Dallas Eakins deserved second chances and it will be interesting to see what D.J. Smith can build in Ottawa, but where were the Scott Sandelins or Rikard Gronborgs? There is still a lot of conservatism at the highest end of the sport and that favors a known quantity such as Sullivan. If you can find a bench boss with his credentials these days, you jump on him. Rutherford clearly knows this.
One more point of interest here involves another recent organizational hire: Mike Vellucci. Coming in from Carolina, where he led the AHL Charlotte Checkers to their first Calder Cup championship, Vellucci will be helming the Baby Pens in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton next season. At the time, I assumed this was a move designed to have a successor should Sullivan and the Penguins falter early in 2019-20, but that’s certainly not the case now that he is armed with a four-year contract. I have no doubt Vellucci will get his own NHL bench someday soon, but it’s less likely to be in Pittsburgh now. Of course, if Sullivan can keep the Penguins competitive for the next four years, that won’t be an issue for management anyway.