Kovacevic: Sullivan’s toughest task begins ☕


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Mike Sullivan. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

About time.

“I knew through this whole process that I wanted to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Mike Sullivan was speaking into a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters Friday night. “I have so much respect for the group of people I get to go to work with every day. It really is a privilege to coach this team, to coach in this organization.

Nice, right?

Best of all, now that the Penguins and Sullivan have put pen to paper on a four-year extension that keeps him behind the bench here for another half-decade, he can once again become precisely what he expects of his players: A hard coach to go against.

Meaning from within, as well.

Not to over-dramatize and paint this as some sort of coup, but let's be real: Every Jim Rutherford remark, every move, every subtle push suggested at those management meetings in Vancouver last month, every emotional sentiment expressed since this occurred ...

[caption id="attachment_852347" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Handshake line, April 16. - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS[/caption]

... has been principally aimed at restoring passion, commitment and structure to the process.

No one's better equipped than this man to make that happen.


But he's got to have a clear shot. And now he has that, potentially on multiple levels:

Phil Kessel's gone, I'm guessing you've heard.

It takes only one player in a locker room to poison the well. Kessel's anything but some bad dude, and he was beloved by teammates here. Probably always will be. But every time he snubbed Sullivan or pouted at the wrong end of the ice in a practice or blew off a specific game instruction, all of the other players saw it. And whether or not they acted on it, another chip was made in the coach's capability to enforce a consistent philosophy.

As I'd been writing since the above handshake, he had to leave for the head coach to do his job.

Now, listen to Sullivan retell one of his conversations with Rutherford following the season: "We talked about three things: We tried to get a little bit younger. We certainly tried to get faster. And we wanted to become a team that’s more difficult to play against. When you look at some of the players Jim’s acquired, I think they check a lot of those boxes. I believe that energy and that enthusiasm is contagious. That alone, I think, is going to benefit all of us when we go to training camp.”

• Similarly, Sullivan needed the cachet to govern what's still a room of NHL superstars.

Upon his early-season arrival in 2015-16, he had that. All concerned, from Sidney Crosby on down, had lost confidence in Mike Johnston. So Sullivan was instantly empowered to call all the shots because the players lose all license after a coaching change. He embraced that, needless to say, and the results spoke for themselves that summer and the next:

[caption id="attachment_852365" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Parade, June 14, 2017. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

It's only human for such urgency to fade. Not even a Patric Hornqvist comes with endless drive and desperation. And boy, did it fade. Not right away. Not plunging off a cliff. But it manifested in the form of maddening inconsistency, outgunning the Lightning one night and getting slaughtered by the Senators the next.

As with everything about this franchise since the autumn of 1984, it's all about those superstars. I loved keeping the core intact. The Bruins did so with an older core and just came within a couple Ws of another Cup. But that needs to be complemented with a strong -- in the Penguins' case, stronger -- supporting cast, and it needs a head coach with the genuine authority to adjust those stars' approaches as needed.

And of course I mean Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Particularly the former. This offseason, this training camp needs to be a pivotal one in the career of the Penguins' other generational talent. I've been ranking this atop the Penguins' priority list all along and, infinitely more important, so do they. Rutherford told me he feels Malkin can produce even more points by becoming more responsible with the puck, by becoming more of a Sullivan-type player.

Apparently, it was enough of a priority, as Sullivan disclosed on the call, that he recently met with Malkin.

“I know Geno's excited about coming back to training camp and helping this team win,” Sullivan elaborated on that. “We’re very much on the same page. He’s an elite player. He’ll continue to be an elite player in this league. He’s been one of the best players of his generation, and he’ll continue to be that.”

Time to get to work on Geno II.

• Then there's that identity thing.

Yeah, the same issue that kept popping up again and again and again, seemingly after every one of those figurative losses to the Senators. Sullivan would be adamant that nothing's changed about his course or scheme or approach, and he might have been right. But when the end result on the ice wouldn't reflect that, it was impossible to not wonder where the disconnect was taking place.

[caption id="attachment_852386" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Frustration, April 12, Uniondale, N.Y. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Sullivan's look back on the call: “We just felt that, as a group, we didn’t come together like we could have, or should have, in order to maximize the potential of our group. It’s not any one person or two people’s fault. It’s the responsibility of everybody involved to make sure they’re making a positive contribution in that regard.”

He was including himself, he'd clarify.

Had Sullivan walked into Cranberry in September as a lame-duck coach, no matter his words or deeds, no matter how much his captain continued to back him -- and Crosby definitely does -- he'd have been buried before he began. Players aren't stupid, especially not within this group. They'd grasp, however subconsciously, that they'd hold the upper hand.

Now, they don't. If Sullivan lasts for the life of this contract, given the nature of the business, there's an excellent chance he'll outlast all but Crosby and a couple others. His voice will matter that much more. His and Crosby's voice combined will matter that much more.

There's no cause for me to pipe up in praise of this extension. It's a no-brainer to the extreme. It feels silly to pat Rutherford and the front office on the back for retaining a coach who's converted championships at a 50 percent rate over four seasons. He's all that and more. One of the most impressive individuals I've encountered in any walk of professional sports, both at the bench and away from it. Pittsburgh's damned lucky to have him.

But his toughest task yet is in front of him, and there's a ton of work to be done. With both hands untied.

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