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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: A warning to help Mike Sullivan avoid Dan Bylsma's fate

| Tuesday, May 29, 2018, 8:34 p.m.
In Mike Sullivan's nine postseason series as coach, the Penguins have never trailed by more than one game.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
In Mike Sullivan's nine postseason series as coach, the Penguins have never trailed by more than one game.
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018.

In the "Miracle on Ice" game at Lake Placid in 1980, Soviet Union coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled goaltender Vladislav Tretiak after one period with the score tied 2-2 against the United States.

It wasn't Tretiak's best period. He leaked in two questionable goals. But he was arguably the world's top goalie and definitely the best goalie at those Winter Olympics. Tretiak was replaced by Vladimir Myshkin, who didn't stink but allowed one goal too many. The U.S. won 4-3.

Since then, many Soviet players claim that Tikhonov pulled Tretiak to flex his muscle and not to win. To indulge his power.

Fast-forward to 2009. Dan Byslma replaced Michel Therrien as coach of the Penguins. Bylsma's primary qualification: He wasn't Therrien, whose iron fist and sharp tongue had thoroughly wearied the players.

The Penguins felt unshackled under Bylsma, and the result was the franchise's first Stanley Cup win in 17 years.

But Bylsma's ego quickly swelled.

He never embraced the Penguins' star power, which enabled the team's success much more than he did.

Bylsma never had a Plan B: "Get to our game" became his mantra of underachievement.

A decision was right simply because he made it. That led to decisions being less carefully considered and to some lousy decisions.

Bad things happened: Bylsma clearly lost control of the Penguins during a 2012 playoff loss to Philadelphia. He got Jarome Iginla, who had scored each of his 438 NHL goals at right wing, and tried to make him a left wing. This was after Iginla was lured to Pittsburgh at the 2013 trade deadline by the prospect of skating on Sidney Crosby's right wing.

Bylsma was dismissed by the Penguins in 2014. After winning the Stanley Cup championship in 2009, Bylsma never got the Penguins back to the final.

Winning even one Cup title is rare and shouldn't be undervalued. But Bylsma's tenure was nonetheless disappointing given his resources.

That brings us to Mike Sullivan, the Penguins' current coach.

Sullivan's time in Pittsburgh has been amazing: two Cup championships in three seasons.

Sullivan has a knack for having his finger on the Penguins' pulse on a moment-by-moment basis. His line-shuffling is impeccable, especially during games. He keeps his players motivated without being clich├ęd or oppressive. (Phil Kessel might disagree, but he just doesn't like coaches.) But a few cracks have showed. Are they early signs of "Bylsma's disease?" ("Disco fever" might be a catchier name.) There's evidence of a disconnect between Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford.

Rutherford signed defenseman Matt Hunwick, but Sullivan dressed him only 10 times after Jan. 1 and not for a single playoff game.

Rutherford traded for enforcer Ryan Reaves by way of protecting the Penguins' stars. Sullivan used him sparingly. Reaves ultimately was sent to Vegas. He got the tying goal that helped lead to Vegas' win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Rutherford acquired center Derick Brassard at this season's trade deadline. Brassard was the fourth-line center in the playoffs, somehow below Riley Sheahan on the depth chart.

Rutherford and Sullivan are by no means at each other's throats. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rutherford lets Sullivan use the players as he sees fit.

But Rutherford didn't acquire those players to fill such minuscule roles. Players get what they earn under Sullivan. But Sheahan over Brassard smacks of the absurd, especially when Sheahan is centering Kessel.

The Kessel situation is a test for Sullivan. The Penguins will try to trade Kessel this offseason. That's because Sullivan is unhappy with Kessel. It would be silly to pretend there's any other reason.

Kessel is no joy to coach. His quirks and annoying habits are well documented. But he just racked up a career-high 92 points.

Sullivan's job would be easier without Kessel. But it's not supposed to be an easy gig. Sullivan needs to put personal feelings aside. Would the team be better minus Kessel? No, not unless Rutherford gets unexpectedly high return. They weren't lining up to trade for Kessel in 2015 and still aren't.

So keep Kessel and use him on Malkin's line.

Sullivan didn't like doing that this past season. But it's what Kessel wants, and it is a big source of the friction between him and Sullivan.

Sullivan thinks Malkin and Kessel on the same line leads to defensive problems. A) Tell the left wing to back-check like crazy. (See Errey, Bob.) B) Malkin has done fine defensively for the latter part of his career. C) Since when are the Penguins built on defense?

Washington had an alarming number of odd-man breaks in the playoffs despite Malkin and Kessel rarely playing together five-on-five.

The quest for balance, no matter how contrived and artificial, is where Sullivan indulges his stubbornness. Putting Crosby, Kessel and Malkin on different lines doesn't necessarily equal balance. Not when Dominik Simon is on Crosby's line, and Sheahan is centering Kessel.

The best players should play on the top two lines. The third line, with Brassard, will still threaten. Sheahan can anchor the fourth.

It's not important to realize a certain vision. Who the coach likes and dislikes isn't important, either. It's important to win.

This isn't meant to excoriate Sullivan. He's an excellent coach. It's meant to provide a vaccine for "Disco fever." There isn't much difference between "Get to our game" and "Play the game the right way."

If that's not enough warning, Sullivan should remember: The Penguins aren't a coach's team. They're a players' team. Even the legendary Scotty Bowman had to learn that, and he did so the hard way.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).


Correction: This column has been edited to reflect that Ryan Reaves scored the tying goal in the third period of Game 1.

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