Penguins sign coach Mike Sullivan to 4-year contract extension
With a new contract in his pocket, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is attempting to pull off a trick extraordinarily rare in hockey circles. It might be more difficult than winning back-to-back Stanley Cups like he did in 2016-17.
He’s going to try to coach the same NHL team for more than a few years without getting fired.
Fifteen of the league’s 31 coaches have 15 months or less of tenure with their current team. Sullivan is the ninth longest-tenured coach in the league, and he’s been on the job less than four years.
Sullivan signed a four-year contract extension Friday that will run through the 2023-24 season.
Sullivan could have played out this season, the last on a three-year extension he signed in 2016, and tried his luck as a coaching free agent. A 51-year-old with two rings to his credit undoubtedly would have drawn a crowd.
Sullivan said he never considered that possibility.
“I knew through this whole process that I wanted to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Sullivan said. “I have so much respect for the group of people that I get to go to work with every day. We’ve got a great group of players. Jim Rutherford is a great general manager to work for. It really is a privilege to coach this team and coach in this organization.”
Rutherford could have taken a wait-and-see approach after the Penguins were swept out of the first round of the playoffs in April. Maybe the returns on Sullivan have already begun to diminish.
Rutherford said he never considered that possibility either.
“We look at the whole body of work, not just one playoff series,” Rutherford said. “The fact of the matter is Mike’s body of work in Pittsburgh has been really good, and he’s a really good coach. Getting him tied up long term was good for us.”
The first item on the agenda for Sullivan after signing his extension is getting the Penguins back to championship contention.
Sullivan endorsed the personnel moves Rutherford has made so far this summer, saying they should make the team younger, faster and harder to play against.
Conventional wisdom says Sullivan should be happy about working with a locker room that no longer includes the notoriously hard-to-handle Phil Kessel, but the coach took care to avoid taking any shots at the popular winger on his way out the door.
“We just felt, as a group, that we didn’t come together like we could have or should have to maximize the potential of our group,” Sullivan said. “It’s not any one person or two people’s fault. It’s the responsibility of everybody involved to make sure that they’re making a positive contribution in that regard.”
One thing Sullivan will have to avoid if he hopes to see the end of the contract he just signed is having his message or methods grow stale.
He said he is optimistic the opposite will happen.
“I believe that it takes time to build relationships with people,” Sullivan said. “When you do build relationships and you can establish trust with players, it can only help the coaching staff and the players to meet some of the challenges that this league inevitably presents.”
Rutherford has often talked about trying to stave off the staleness that sometimes creeps into the locker room of a veteran team. The GM said he was never talking about his coach in that sense.
“The coach has always been on top of what’s going on and what the issues are, what we can make better, who needs help, what coach should deal with what player and how do we approach things,” Rutherford said. “He is so driven to win again. One of the things I talk about is people getting content. Are they OK with the success of a couple of championships in the last few years? With Mike, he’s driven to win championships and believes we can win again.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .