Kevin Gorman: Weighing the pros, cons of Penguins extending Mike Sullivan
On the opening day of NHL free agency, Jim Rutherford’s biggest revelation was about what the Pittsburgh Penguins will do with Mike Sullivan moving forward.
Sullivan won the power struggle with Phil Kessel, as the Penguins chose their two-time Stanley Cup champion coach over the two-time Stanley Cup champion sniper.
But Rutherford was noncommittal Monday about extending Sullivan before the final year of his contract, and that left some room for interpretation.
The Penguins general manager has been too busy remaking his roster this offseason, trading defenseman Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks, Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes and signing free-agent winger Brandon Tanev, to address his coach’s future with the organization.
“Up until this point, my focus was to change some of the players,” Rutherford said. “There’s obviously some work I have to do going forward, make some decisions. Personally, I feel Mike is a terrific coach. He’s done a very good job. He has good communication with the players, and I would like to see him stay long-term. But when I get to that, I don’t know.”
Failing to do so would leave the Penguins with a coach in limbo. That could make for an uncomfortable season.
“Well, there’s positives and negatives to that,” Rutherford said. “So, yeah, you do have some concerns. But it can work both ways.”
There are pros and cons for Rutherford to offer an extension — and for Sullivan to sign one.
Pro: Penguins players know Rutherford sided with Sullivan, so an extension would allow the coach to carry more clout and insist on a better buy-in from his team.
Con: If Sullivan isn’t extended, Penguins players would see him as nothing more than a lame duck. That could undermine his authority and expedite his departure.
Pro: Sullivan could be convinced to stay, given he has one of 31 coveted jobs in the NHL, coaches two of the game’s biggest stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and has led the Penguins to a pair of Cup championships.
Con: Coaches often provide diminishing returns, and Sullivan has gone from winning back-to-back Cup championships to being eliminated in the second and first rounds, respectively, in the past two playoffs.
Pro: Promoting coaches from the AHL has worked well for the Penguins, as Dan Bylsma and Sullivan both led them to Cup championships. The Penguins have a potential successor in reigning AHL coach of the year Mike Vellucci, who replaced Clark Donatelli at their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate.
Con: Rutherford replaced Bylsma with Mike Johnston, who was fired in December of his second season for “underachieving.” Sullivan’s predecessor is proof the Penguins could do worse.
Pro: Sullivan could be coaching for his job and to restore his reputation after the Penguins were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders. That should serve as inspiration for a season that could see marked improvement.
Con: If the Penguins make major strides under Sullivan without an extension, he could become a hot commodity next offseason. Bylsma landed with the Sabres (and Barry Trotz with the Islanders after leading the Capitals to the Cup), so Sullivan shouldn’t have trouble finding another NHL coaching job. Then again, if Sullivan doesn’t find the right job, he could end up as an assistant in Detroit someday.
Pro: By trading Kessel, Rutherford backed Sullivan. The GM and coach presented a united front at their season-ending news conference, and they appear to be on the same page as for the future of the organization. An extension would fortify that front.
Con: The Penguins set a precedent they could blame their coach and GM if the team underperforms, as they did by firing Bylsma and Ray Shero in 2014. That should be a warning for Rutherford not to tie his own fate to that of his coach.
After all, it can work both ways.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .