Tim Benz: Mike Sullivan admits Penguins had chemistry problems | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Mike Sullivan admits Penguins had chemistry problems

Tim Benz
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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t have much time to figure out the team’s chemistry problems, Tribune-Review columnist Tim Benz says.

We are three posts into our five-part series of “money quotes” from Mark Madden’s interview with Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on 105.9 the X. We’ve gotten Sullivan’s reaction to the Phil Kessel trade, his thoughts on getting Evgeni Malkin right again and his views on how to address some defensive structure deficiencies.

Today we examine how Sullivan plans to address a different problem.

Team chemistry.

That’s a matter general manager Jim Rutherford raised during their joint season-ending news conference after the team was swept by the Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We were a very tight-knit team, and I didn’t see that this year, almost from Day 1,” Rutherford said, referencing the championship teams of 2016 and 2017. “I didn’t see a point where our guys came together as a team.”

Often, a comment like that from a general manager can be viewed as an indictment of the coach — that his bench boss failed to bring the team’s roster together to tug on the same rope.

Instead, Rutherford decided to deflect the blame onto the players for failing to heed his coach’s message, praising his coach for the job he did keeping the locker room together to the degree that he was capable.

For his part, Sullivan acknowledged the assertion that chemistry was a problem last year.

“I do agree with it. It’s something that we’ve talked about,” Sullivan said when Madden broached the chemistry concerns. “We just didn’t quite come together as we hoped we would.”

However, Sullivan named himself as the culprit.

“It starts with me as the head coach,” Sullivan said. “I’ve got to do a better job of pulling these guys together and making sure the buy-in is where it needs to be.

“I thought we had (chemistry) at times during the course of the season and we felt like we were gaining traction, but it was inconsistent. As a result, we didn’t maximize the potential of the group we had.”

Rutherford was so concerned … that he gave Sullivan a four-year contract extension.

So obviously Rutherford doesn’t share Sullivan’s opinion that the chemistry concerns started in the coach’s office. Instead, it appears Rutherford believes the chemistry problems began and ended with Phil Kessel.

Unless, of course, noted nice guy Olli Maatta made the most drastic, yet under-noticed heel-turn of all time. Because those are the only two guys who were moved off the roster, not counting Matt Cullen’s retirement.

I was harder on Kessel than most in the Pittsburgh media. But not even I am ready to pin all the chemistry concerns on one guy. So, if the theory that just Kessel and Maatta getting booted off the roster will cure that problem, I’m not buying.

The remaining Penguins players need to look in the mirror and listen to their coach.

And the coach needs to get the players to listen to him. Kessel couldn’t have possibly been the only guy going rogue in that capacity. I think Malkin did, Kris Letang did, maybe even other standout players like Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist did.

Pinning a problem like this on one conveniently traded player doesn’t wash with me. Other guys in black and gold need to interact better with the coach — and each other — next season.

“Human nature is hard to figure out sometimes,” Sullivan said in April. “That’s one of the biggest challenges in coaching.”

Michel Therrien learned that lesson in February 2009 after getting to the Stanley Cup Final the year before. He got fired after the players had tuned him out.

Dan Bylsma learned that lesson in 2014. His team had the best record in the Eastern Conference the year before. But his players barely paid attention to a word he said in that 2013 Eastern Conference final against Boston or while they were blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers in the second round of the 2014 playoffs.

Mike Johnston learned that lesson in his second season after starting his Penguins coaching career 22-6-4.

Therrien was given about four months to recapture that chemistry before getting canned. Johnston was given a little more than two months into his second season before receiving a pink slip.

Meanwhile, some would argue Bylsma was given two years too long.

The contract extension says Sullivan will have at least as long as Bylsma. But my bet says he doesn’t get it if things don’t get better quickly.

Sullivan needs to figure out an answer to this issue. And fast.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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