It's Up to Players, Not Mike Sullivan, to Solve Penguins' Woes

Sullivan is the latest summoned to step in and attempt to coach a team that’s comprised of players who perceive themselves as better than they actually are, a team that’s short on leadership, accountability and discipline, and one that lacks self-starters.


photo via Pittsburgh Penguins / greg shamus

 

The first game of the Mike Sullivan Era was most appropriate in that it was characterized by the same type of misplays, mistakes and misinterpretations that were deemed by somebody, somewhere to have necessitated Sullivan’s presence behind the bench in the first place.

Poor puck management, not getting the puck deep when necessary, not enough shots on the power play, not enough net-front presence, an inability to convert often enough when opportunities materialized …

That’s the same stuff that got Mike Johnston fired, and Dan Bylsma fired before him.

It’s the same stuff that’s periodically been plaguing the Penguins since they last won the Stanley Cup.

Sullivan is the latest summoned to step in and attempt to coach a team that’s comprised of players who perceive themselves as better than they actually are, a team that’s short on leadership, accountability and discipline, and one that lacks self-starters.

That’s a problem, it’s been a problem and it will continue to be the problem until the players decide to take ownership and do something about it.

Sullivan has a window available during which he might at least get everyone’s attention, as Bylsma had during that magical run from February 15, 2009 to the Stanley Cup. Sullivan played in the NHL, as Bylsma had. And Sullivan is taking over at a time when the Penguins’ playoff prospects are looking questionable if not desperate, same as Blysma.

Fear can often motivate even those who would otherwise refuse to be led.

Sullivan is also a former head coach in the NHL, one with a verbal and physical presence about him that’s almost impossible to overlook.

Johnston knew what he was talking about; it’s just that it was difficult to tell if and when he was actually speaking. He was a grandfatherly-like figure with a junior coach’s resume.

He never had a chance.

Sullivan isn’t just the proverbial different voice teams turn to in difficult times such as these, he’s a different guy.

But he won’t swoop in and change things by re-inventing the hockey wheel. His system will resemble what the Penguins have been doing all along. It’s how they do it that will make the difference, if a difference is to be made.

Consider captain Sidney Crosby’s take in October, just prior to the opener in Dallas, comparing last season’s and this season’s systems:

“I think it’s pretty similar. You have to build that identity, though. Every team kind of has the same goals or wants to play the same way; it’s whoever really does it best and forms an identity. Teams are made up of different players and styles but I think ultimately the same kind of habits and details are important for every team.”

The Penguins’ identity right about now is they have no identity. Their 4-1 loss to the Capitals in Sullivan’s debut game on Monday night dropped their record to 15-11-3. It also left the Penguins with 11 regulation-time wins in 29 tries.

Had goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury not had a career year to this point, both records would be appreciably worse.

If a turnaround is to be conjured up, it’ll happen shift by shift, period by period and game by game, not in front of a dry-erase board.

No matter how loudly those in search of scapegoats have been howling at the Moon about the relative merits of Johnston’s system or the perceived usefulness of Rod Scuderi.

“When we got in trouble, a lot of it stemmed from our own puck management when we were late in shifts,” Sullivan assessed after the Caps game. “We were trying to make a play, most specifically at the offensive blueline or coming through that neutral zone, when there’s really not a lot of ice to play on, where our opponent has numbers or we don’t have speed or we don’t have support and we’re looking to try to make a play there. For me, that’s an area of the game where we have to become more difficult to play against by making better decisions with the puck.”

At least it didn’t take Sullivan long to get up to speed.

The lingering question involves whether the Penguins will ever learn.
 

 

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section