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Extension for Penguins’ coach Sullivan puts ‘focus on trying to win hockey games’

The Pittsburgh Penguins have handed coach Mike Sullivan a three-year extension, which should come as no surprise given the spectacular work he’s done in little more than a year.

Coming off of a winning season gives little certainty about the future in the coaching business. Just ask now-former Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant. However, if you’re able to maintain those winning ways, you can afford yourself a bit more job security.

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would be able to tell you about that.

On Monday, the Penguins announced that Sullivan received a pretty fantastic gift to kick off the post-Christmas season in the form of a three-year contract extension. Handing the extension to Sullivan is one of the least surprising moves the Penguins will make this season, next off-season or in any campaign in the near future. Financial terms of the deal haven’t been reported.

“Knowing you have a level of certainty, I think, brings a certain level of peace of mind and just an opportunity to put the business side of the game behind you and just focus on trying to win hockey games,” Sullivan said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie and Bill West.

It sure doesn’t seem as if Sullivan needs much more focus on winning games, though.

After taking over from Mike Johnston, Sullivan led the Penguins to a 33-16-5 record in the regular season and, come the post-season, they looked near unstoppable. Through 24 games, Sullivan’s bunch went 16-8 en route to the Stanley Cup, the franchise’s second of the Sidney Crosby era and first since 2009.

It goes beyond simply winning the Stanley Cup, though, even if that likely would have served as enough to buy Sullivan a year even if the team were struggling. After leading the Penguins to a title, he had the franchise moving along on a recent seven-game winning streak and, entering the holiday break, Pittsburgh boasted the second-best record in the NHL.

Things really have been night and day under Sullivan, too. Before he took over, the Penguins offense was struggling, defensively the team was sound but not enough to consistently win games and the power play looked anemic at times. Once he stepped behind the bench, though, Pittsburgh took off.

Under Sullivan, the Penguins’ goals per game increased from 2.36 to 3.24 — a rate the team has actually improved upon this season, sitting at 3.40 per game through 35 contests — while their goals against per game only increased by a slight 0.16. In addition, the power play leapt from a 15.6 percent conversion rate to an even 20 percent, while the penalty kill also saw an increase of 0.4 percent.

“I felt he did the best coaching job in the league last year, and he's continued to do it,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He's a guy that can relate and communicate with our players, so this is good not only for the Penguins but also for him, knowing (he has) security here in Pittsburgh.”

And with a roster that’s near identical to the one he had last season, there’s a chance for Sullivan to create security even beyond his three-year extension. The Penguins are among the class of the Eastern Conference and true contenders to take home back-to-back titles. If Sullivan can make that a reality, he could cement himself behind the Pittsburgh bench for years to come.

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