Mark Madden: Coach Mike Sullivan must steer Penguins in new direction
In 1997, Mario Lemieux retired for the first time. The 1996-97 Penguins had finished second in the Northeast Division at 38-36-8.
Eddie Johnston had been dismissed as coach with 20 games remaining and replaced on an interim basis by general manager Craig Patrick. When the 1997-98 season dawned, Kevin Constantine was the new coach. Constantine was structured and systematic to the point of blunt force trauma. His video sessions didn’t dissect, they humiliated.
The Penguins won the Northeast Division that season, going 40-24-18. They scored 57 fewer goals but allowed 92 fewer. In the midst of all that system and structure, Jaromir Jagr collected 102 points and won the scoring title by 11 points.
Jagr bought in. There were anxious moments. Jagr’s hand needed held every step of the way. But Jagr recognized the path to success, even if he didn’t lovingly embrace it.
That could work again.
I don’t want to replace Mike Sullivan, let alone with Constantine or any facsimile of his tyranny. He got fired by the Penguins early in his third season, coaching only briefly in the NHL after that. Constantine’s style wasn’t made for the long haul.
But, having won Stanley Cups with speed in 2016 and ’17, the Penguins find themselves aging and slower. Not old and slow, but aging and slower.
The Penguins still have a ton of talent. But it needs steered in a different direction. Sullivan has to see that. Then he needs to make his players see it. He also needs to make his stars see they can be productive within context, like Jagr in ’97-98.
Would today’s Penguins buy in?
Early returns suggest not, courtesy of defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang got testy when asked about adjusting his style to take less risk: “You don’t want me to make mistakes? I’ll try that. Next year, I’ll try to make no mistakes at all.
“Maybe next year, you’re going to say, ‘Hey, (Letang) doesn’t do anything offensively.’ So now you’re going to rip me apart because I don’t produce anything.”
There’s sense to what Letang says. The fans and media (ahem) always will find something to complain about. Unless Letang makes no mistakes at all.
Letang shouldn’t change his game. He’s needed to lug the puck out of danger when the Penguins are bottled up. He’s needed to get the puck to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin quickly and precisely. He’s needed to make plays offensively.
You want exactly what Letang does 95 percent of the time. He will err, sure. But there is no replacing him. Trading Letang shouldn’t be even a remote thought.
But it’s reasonable to ask Letang to be judicious.
Focus has been put on a play Letang failed to make in Game 4 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders.
Jake Guentzel staked the Penguins to a 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the game. But the Islanders tied the score 94 seconds later when the Islanders got the puck past a pinching Letang, then Jordan Eberle converted a two-on-one break.
Before criticizing Letang, realize he did exactly what Sullivan wants. The Penguins’ system mandates the defensemen pinch. The mistake wasn’t pinching, it was letting the puck by. It was compounded by no forward rotating back to cover.
The Penguins should have played it safe for a few shifts after their dream start. Making the Islanders finally play at a deficit for a while would have been interesting. Their system is better when they lead. (Find one that isn’t.)
But the Penguins pressed for another goal. That’s their way. It went bad. That, too, was very often their way. That’s why they got swept.
Asking offensively talented players on a team that’s won championships to be judicious won’t work. They won’t err on the side of caution. They will err on the side of what’s worked and what they always have done. They won’t address their limitations.
So don’t provide options. Be rigid. Install a tighter system. If it works, you can build in more leeway at a later date. (Or promise to do so, anyway.)
Sullivan and GM Jim Rutherford’s post-elimination comments suggest the Penguins never found their identity. That’s because their old identity died of natural causes. Positive change can happen organically. In this case, it won’t.
Don’t ask. Demand.
Don’t replicate Constantine. But learn from what he did. It worked.