Winger Sullivan finds his way with Penguins
When his blades hit the ice Monday for a morning skate at MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, veteran Penguins left wing Steve Sullivan will have had three times the number of games (six) as off-day practices (two) dating to the season opener Oct. 6.
After road games against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night and the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, the Penguins won't hold another off-day practice until Friday.
Three full practices over the opening three regular-season weeks for Sullivan, who signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July. This is no ideal scenario for Sullivan to process a system so intricate that coach Dan Bylsma resisted full implementation of it until the training camp after he steered the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
"I'm learning that it's a very upbeat, high-tempo system, and there are situations where you can take advantage of other teams," Sullivan said Saturday night after the Penguins' 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Consol Energy Center. "I've just got to learn to take advantage of those soft spots where I can get to and try to use my speed to my advantage."
"It's tough to get systems in practice, so I'm getting most of my work in games."
General manager Ray Shero said Sullivan, whom he knew from his tenure as assistant general manager with Nashville, wasn't signed with the expectation he would lead the Penguins in scoring.
The Penguins signed Sullivan, Bylsma said, because his savvy, shiftiness, speed and soft hands were viewed as must-haves for a power play that, aside from the first four months after Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien almost three years ago, often had appeared powerless.
The Penguins, who had Sunday off after Bylsma cancelled practice, began the day 10th in the NHL with a power play clicking at 22.2 percent (6 for 27).
They ranked 25th last season at 15.8 percent (49 for 311) and 19th the previous year at 17.2 percent (56-for-326).
Sullivan has assisted on just one of the Penguins' power-play markers this season, but that statistic doesn't demonstrate his full impact.
"He takes what a team gives him. That's his best quality," defenseman Kris Letang said. "(Past power-play struggles) have been because we were playing too much in our own end, and we're not doing that much now."
Credit Sullivan's expert carrying of the puck through the neutral zone with the Penguins' ability to set up quicker with the man-advantage, Bylsma said.
Once in the offensive zone, Sullivan has appeared masterful at creating space for himself with a quick spin near the boards or a short and smooth lateral feed to generate puck movement.
Injured center Sidney Crosby knows those tricks. He offered this observation about Sullivan's impact on a power play that has yet to feature Crosby (concussion) with center Evgeni Malkin, who has missed three games with a sore right knee:
"He's just really smart and makes the right play. Whoever seems to be open, he gets them the puck, and that's what you need," Crosby said. "Any successful power play has to have guys that see certain things, too, and he's got that hockey sense."
Sullivan also has more to contribute than just on-point passes or power-play pacing. Bylsma said a few more shots than the nine he has registered wouldn't hurt.
"In terms of five-on-five, his board play has exceeded expectation. He's made plays for us and added speed," Bylsma said. "If there's one thing, he's constantly trying to set up players instead of shooting more ... and he's still finding his way a little bit in terms of supporting his teammates with the way we want to play."
Give Sullivan more practice time, scarce this month because of the Penguins' heavy schedule (13 games), and he figures to show that the Penguins were wise not to pass on him.
Scouting report: Winnipeg Jets
Where/when: 8:30 p.m. Monday/MTS Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba
TV/radio: Root Sport Pittsburgh/WXDX-FM (105.9), Penguins Radio Network
Last year's series: Penguins won, 4-0-0 (vs. Atlanta Thrashers)
Notable: The Penguins have scored seven goals on 94 shots in three games missed by center Evgeni Malkin (sore right knee). ... This is the Jets' fourth game and just their second at home. They have been limited to a goal in two of three contests, all losses. ... The Penguins have not played at Winnipeg since Feb. 16, 1996, a 1-0 win that featured a goal by right wing Jaromir Jagr and 32 saves from goalie Tom Barrasso.