On December 12, the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves stumbling along in 9th place. Since then, the team has consistently trended upward and now is one of the hottest teams in hockey. The difference? Head Coach Mike Sullivan.
The 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins have been a tale of two teams. The season started out with the team streaky, inconsistent and underperforming. With eight games left, they are one of the Eastern Conference’s most dangerous teams, and it’s in large part due to the leadership of Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan took over a team in disarray. The regimented style of his predecessor Mike Johnston simply wasn’t working. Sullivan hadn’t even completed one year with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate before he found himself at the helm of one of the most talented, and expectation laden, teams in hockey.
Clearly, Sullivan was ready for the challenge. Since taking control of the Penguins, the improvements he has brought, both to the team and to individuals, has been nothing short of incredible.
When Sullivan was hired by the Pens, the team was 15-10-3 and out of the playoff picture. Their power play was operating at 15.6%. Their star-studded lineup was generating less than 2.40 goals per game. Nothing seemed to be working.
Sullivan instituted an entirely new system. Gone were the short, suffocating passes of Johnston’s offense. Sullivan wanted speed and agility. His system, combined with Jim Rutherford’s successful moves, worked wonders for the team.
Since Sullivan’s hiring the Penguins have gone 26-12-5. That .684 winning percentage would be the second highest in the NHL on the season. The power play also improved to almost 19.0% and became more consistent.
Team discipline has also improved. The Penguins are no longer intimidated by physical teams. Their ability to play well against aggravating rivals like the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers is an important aspect of their current success.
Most impressively, the teams overall offense has exploded to almost 3.09 goals per game. That includes 13 games where the Pens have scored five for more goals. Sullivan has successfully harnessed this team’s offensive potential and turned it loose.
One of the main reasons Sullivan has been able to improve the team so drastically is because he has overseen the improvements of the Pens’ individual players. Two excellent examples are Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
Under Johnston’s leadership, Crosby amassed a paltry 6G-13A line. Good for only 19 points through the first 28 games. Since Sullivan assumed command, he has broken out for 25 goals and 32 assists. Sullivan’s coaching has led to an improvement of 0.56 points per game in the superstar.
Letang was struggling mightily under Johnston’s system. He had only one goal and 14 assists in the first 28 games, accumulating a -14 rating in that time. Under Sullivan, Letang added a remarkable 13 goals and 28 assists. His rating also improved, earning a +11 in that span.
These are just two examples of how Sullivan’s coaching and his system have allowed the team to excel and reach the potential we all felt they had before the season began.
Sullivan has been the shot in the arm the Penguins so desperately needed. He has taken a team that was dead in the water and turned them into a fast, offensive juggernaut.
Things can change quickly in the NHL, but as we stand the Penguins are in a good position. The team is producing at a high clip and have the depth to withstand some recent injuries.
The team’s current success is in no small part due to the leadership of Mike Sullivan. Well the result may not be the same, there are remarkable similarities between this season and the work Dan Bylsma did with a struggling 2009 club.
Regardless of how this season ends, Sullivan has the team much improved and ready to compete with the best the current NHL has to offer. That’s much more than could have been when he was hired back in December.