The End of an Era in Pittsburgh?

Has Mike Sullivan's tenure ran its course in Pittsburgh following collapse?
Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins
Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins / Winslow Townson/GettyImages

Pittsburgh sports is a hot topic, not just in the Greater Allegheny county but throughout the entire nation. With one of the largest football and hockey fan bases nationally, every game is analyzed ad nauseum, and every coach is equally critiqued. This was evident during the Steelers offensive failures during last year’s NFL season that saw the majority of fans, pundits, and analysts calling for the eventual unemployment of Matt Canada. Mike Sullivan currently finds himself squarely at the center of that conversation in Pittsburgh.

Jake Guentzel
Pittsburgh Penguins v San Jose Sharks / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

In the 2014-2015 season, Sullivan was the up-and-coming coach to watch based on his couching success of the Penguins’s minor league affiliate, the Wilkes Barre Penguins. The mid-season firing of Dan Bylsma saw the promotion of Sullivan from the affectionately known Baby Penguins to the major leagues. The coaching change reinvigorated the team and lead to 37 wins (66 percent winning percentage) and a Stanley Cup Championship over the San Jose Sharks. It is interesting to note that Bylsma ended his Penguins career with a winning percentage just north of ~62 percent, while Sullivan currently stands at ~56 percent. Statistics, however, do not reflect the feelings of the players in the locker room, the system being utilized, and the management’s relationship with the coaching staff.

Rumors surrounding the players’ attitudes in the room are making their rounds on the Internet. Has Sullivan officially lost the locker room? Where does his relationship with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Erik Karlsson presently sit? Could Sullivan be headed toward the same fate as Bylsma?

Kyla Dubas
2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round One / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Struggles on the power play are well documented, but an unwillingness to adjust his system to the aging core may represent Sullivan’s largest shortcoming this season. The team is no longer flashy and fast, but seasoned and smart. As one of the oldest rosters in the NHL, it would seem logical to build the roster to reflect the best use of talent. With veteran leadership aplenty, why attempt to institute the “dump and retrieve” style when the team lacks quick, speedy forwards? And with the jettison of Jake Guentzel to the Hurricanes (who continues to produce up and down their lineup), it would have made sense to craft a playbook centered around the team’s strengths. For as maddening as the Steelers and Mike Tomlin can be, there is no question on what the team’s true identity is – defense. The Penguins lack a true identity, or at the least, any consistent model the team is able to execute. Kyle Dubas and Fenway Sports publicly support Mike Sullivan, but you have to wonder how long this will continue if the team continues to struggle. Fenway has shown hesitation to make major changes soon after acquiring teams, but the clock is ticking on the end of Sidney Crosby’s illustrious career, and he may have the final say in any potential coaching changes at the end of the day.

There are several potential replacements around the AHL and NHL if Fenway and GM Kyle Dubas decide to make changes:

J.D. Forrest would be an unlikely candidate, but I include him here as the major NHL club has a history of hiring directly from its AHL affiliate. Forrest took over the Wilkes Barre Penguins during the COVID shortened 2020-2021 season and has hovered around the .500 mark since. He lacks the experience and body of work given his young coaching career in the minors, so his ascension would be a long shot.

Jay Leach
Providence Bruins v Laval Rocket / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Jay Leach (Seattle Kraken Assistant Coach) also has strong ties to Pittsburgh, and could be a viable candidate if a change is made in the offseason. Leach’s playing career started as a draft pick by the Phoenix Coyotes, and then bounced around the AHL/NHL circuit for a number of years prior to retiring and accepting a coaching in 2014 for the German Professional league (DEL). In 2015, he was hired as an assistant coach to Mike Sullivan in Wilkes Barre and would go on to serve in an interim coach role for the remainder of the 2015 season following Sullivan’s promotion to the NHL club. Since then, he would serve at the Head Coach of the Providence Bruins and most recently an assistant with the Seattle Kraken.

Cail MacLean, Marc Savard
Calgary Flames v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Mark Savard is a name recently discussed quite often on Penguins fan sites and personal discussions. A decorated player, there are few old-school fans that do not at least respect Mark Savard and his potential to impact an organization in a positive manner. He would be a popular vote, but he may need more time and experience prior to taking over a Hall of Fame laden roster in need of a jumpstart.

Mike Vellucci
Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Mike Vellucci has carved out a name for himself in the AHL, and has recently served as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins under Sullivan. Many credit him with developing many up-and-coming stars like Tyler Seguin, and he helped craft our penalty-kill unit into a top-10 unit (even given this year’s injuries).

Changes won’t occur until after the season, as it seems we are destined to finish a second-consecutive non-playoff season hovering around or just under .500. Major changes will happen in the offseason, and I strongly believe we may have seen the last season of Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh Penguins