When the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to make a coaching change in December of 2015, it altered the Stanley Cup history books.
But how much of that change for the Pittsburgh Penguins actually had to do with the coach who came in?
There’s a theory that the Pittsburgh Penguins attack more and generate (significantly) more possession under Sullivan than they did with Johnston. That’s not entirely correct.
At 5v5 over their time in Pittsburgh, the two coaches were within .01 percent in score-adjusted shot attempts and .56 percent in unblocked score-adjusted shot attempts. Not exactly a life changing set of numbers.
What Sullivan did have was Matt Murray, for starters, to provide him much better quality goaltending than Marc-Andre Fleury. Having a goaltender play like Murray played is worth its weight in gold.
Now, let’s not overlook that Fleury is the sole reason the Penguins advanced to where they did this year before Murray came back, but Murray was in goal when the horn sounded for the last two Cups. That matters.
It also helps that Sullivan has had Phil Kessel, Justin Schultz, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino for his double-Cup tenure.
In June of 2014 Jim Rutherford was hired. After a first round loss in the 2015 playoffs, the team didn’t perform as GMJR wanted in 2015-2016. In December of 2015, he brought in his own guy behind the bench.
Both Kessel and Bonino played games under Johnston, but it was at the beginning of their time with the Penguins – and it wasn’t many games. That also makes a difference.
Front Office Changes
If we’re being honest, and I’m trying to be, we have to focus on what happened above Johnston and Sullivan’s pay-grade: a GM change.
The most important thing wasn’t the coaching change – and I’m not trying to take away from Mike Sullivan – it was the front office switch. Jim Rutherford, with help from Jason Botterill, brought in players designed for a high-flying possession style hockey game and he made three scoring lines that rivaled any in the NHL.
Rutherford shifted what Shero was doing. It wasn’t working anymore and it wasn’t getting any better.
Mike Sullivan provided a fresh voice. Maybe the Penguins at the time weren’t fully committed to Mike Johnston, even though they’d never say it and we’ll never actually know. Maybe they just didn’t have the time to become a cohesive unit.
Maybe a new (to the team) GM saw an opportunity to legitimately being in his own coach without question due to early season struggles. Did anyone honestly expect the Penguins to miss the playoffs in 2015-2016? Be serious now. Even with a slow start, it’s still Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
I didn’t think so.
The coaching change wasn’t one that hurt the Penguins, but it didn’t necessarily put them over the top either.
Jim Rutherford gave Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin depth. Two of the best – if not the best – players in the world were supported, offensively, with extravagant talent that fit the teams style of play. That’s more important than who’s behind the bench.
The acquisition of Justin Schultz proved extremely valuable over the course of this season and the playoffs as the Penguins captured their second straight Stanley Cup. The first back-to-back Champions in the salary cap era. That’s an incredible feat.
Mike Sullivan did one hell of a job managing his pieces and deploying his personnel. But Jim Rutherford put them there.
Can we really put as much weight in the coaching change being the trigger as we have? Because Mike Johnston didn’t have time to see it all pan out, and that’s a little unfair.
As it stands now, though, Mike Sullivan is on his way to becoming a Hall of Fame coach. That’s reality. Two Stanley Cups is a big deal – and it means he isn’t likely going anywhere anytime soon, so he’s going to rack up the wins with this team.
Jim Rutherford had a vision and he finally had the money. He gave the organization the pieces to the puzzle and Mike Sullivan finished putting together what Mike Johnston started.
It’s been one hell of a two-season run for the Penguins – and a third Cup is definitely within reach. But we’re really going to see Mike Sullivan’s value if Rutherford doesn’t fill in the remaining holes on offense.
In the end, under the shadow of a rookie goaltender winning two Cups and the face of the NHL for the last 12 years, Jim Rutherford hasn’t been given enough credit for what he’s done in Pittsburgh.