Tim Benz: Can Penguins coach Mike Sullivan be empowered by his contract extension?
It’s our final “money quote” post, looking at the interview Trib columnist Mark Madden conducted with Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan on 105.9 the X last week.
Here, we examine Sullivan’s recent contract extension.
Empowering the head coach rarely has been a priority for the Penguins. That’s not to say the organization has shied away from heavy-handed, powerful coaching personalities who looked to imprint themselves on the team. Scottie Bowman, Kevin Constantine, Herb Brooks and Michel Therrien all fit that description.
Despite varying levels of success, those four coaches burned out quickly in Pittsburgh. Therrien lasted the longest, two full seasons (2007-08 and 2008-09) plus the end of 2005-06 and the start of 2009.
Sullivan is in that mold. He was widely praised for bringing some structure, order and accountability back to the team. Those were traits that were absent during the back end of the Dan Bylsma years and Mike Johnston’s brief tenure.
However, a season ago, the Penguins players seemed to go into tune-out mode with Sullivan at times in the regular season — and during their four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders in the playoffs — as they did with all those previous coaches before him.
Through the comments of general manager Jim Rutherford and Sullivan’s own admission, chemistry was a problem in the locker room last year. So was the players’ willingness to buy-in to what Sullivan was preaching.
Allowing Sullivan to coach out the last year of his contract and firing him midseason, if necessary, seemed like an easy option for Rutherford. If Sullivan’s grip on the team continued to erode, he could’ve simply made the switch to recently hired Wilkes-Barre bench boss Mike Vellucci.
But in trading away one of the players with whom Sullivan didn’t connect (Phil Kessel) and extending Sullivan’s deal through 2023-24, Rutherford sent the message to the team that Sullivan’s orders are to be followed.
Not that this extension means that Sullivan will see all of it — or even most of it — through.
Dan Bylsma got a contract extension after his Penguins were swept out of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. He was under contract through 2016 at that point. He was gone by the end of 2014.
Look at Joel Quenneville. He was fired by Chicago during the middle of last season. Florida hired him this summer to the tune of $30 million over five years, plus the $6 million he was going to be owed by the Blackhawks for 2019-20.
An attractive resume such as Sullivan’s, featuring two Stanley Cup titles, may entice a team looking for a new head coach to pay a similar amount if Rutherford should fire him.
When Madden asked if Sullivan still feels as if he is in a “one year at time situation,” Sullivan answered in the affirmative.
“I do. It’s the nature of the business that we are in. It’s all about winning,” Sullivan said.
At least from the standpoint of optics and organizational game-planning, Sullivan now has a foothold. There are no questions about a Barry Trotz-esque walk-year situation as the NHL witnessed with the Capitals during their Stanley Cup championship of 2018.
“It’s just stability. Anytime you have stability in your own club, it just makes for more of a comfort level,” Sullivan told Madden.
Actually, players getting too comfortable with the coach has been an issue for the Penguins in the past, particularly toward the end of Bylsma’s run.
I’d argue Sullivan’s greatest strength when he first arrived in Pittsburgh was making the players uncomfortable. Suddenly they didn’t know if some amount of accountability would accompany a lazy backcheck, dumb drop pass or petulant retaliation penalty.
Too much of the vinegar can be a bad thing with star players. It could be argued that problem was starting to seep in a year ago for Sullivan, especially with the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Kessel.
But the expanded contract and Kessel’s excommunication to Arizona sends a message that management backs the coach and still wants him to manage the players, not the other way around.
“It starts with an attitude,” Sullivan said. “A team attitude we’ve got to build that hopefully will help us become the team in the true sense of the word that we want to become.”
Interesting word choice there. “Become the team we want to become.” Not “rediscover” or “the team we once were.” Sullivan truly seems to view this as starting over. And that’s probably smart.
Let’s see if the players view it the same way.
If they don’t, that extension may be worthless.