Yes, the Pens are Better Off Under Mike Sullivan, But…

Mike Sullivan, Head Coach, Pittsburgh Penguins

Wednesday was National Penguin Awareness Day. So here’s what I’m aware of:

As things stand on the third Wednesday of January, the Penguins haven’t been good enough. The product, in the big picture, has been beneath itself and the foundation of its fanbase for a while now. There’s just no putting a prom dress on that pig (and in the event of National Pig Awareness Day being a thing, I apologize in advance).

On the plus side, the biggest winners of the NFL’s Divisional Playoff weekend, from a Pittsburgh P.O.V., were actually the Penguins. While the Steelers were playing their guts out in Denver, the Pens gut-punched the Carolina Hurricanes in a battle for playoff positioning, and they went to bed Sunday knowing many Pittsburghers had been distracted by football until their season was more than half over.

However, whatever gas was in their tank that afternoon, they clearly ran out of in St. Louis, losing a game that was winnable through two periods. Sadly, this has been par for the course for this group.

(Sidebar: It’s a damn shame they couldn’t play that game on Wednesday. Back when both “Expansion Era” franchises were in their infancy and played in the same division, Pens-Blues was a very rancorous rivalry, and on history alone, much more appropriate for Rivalry Night than many of the NHL’s made-for-cable-TV “rivalries.” At least this time NBCSN gave us a worthy substitute with Blues-Red Wings.)

Losing to Ken Hitchcock is bothersome. I’ve never had much respect for him, between his Olympic team tanking and his pioneering of the nonsensical “Crosby is a diver” narrative when he coached the Flyers and his own hand-picked punk, Derian Hatcher, performed involuntary dentistry on Sid. What’s much sadder, though, is the constant spinning of Penguin tires that just won’t cease.

We’ve seen the Pens approach games the right way more often under Mike Sullivan, and yet we haven’t seen a winning streak of any kind since Steigy had hair–or early November, if you wish to split hairs. Even under Sullivan, they’ve been consistently inconsistent.

Sullivan has roughly a third of his $70-million team invested in three presumably elite forwards. He has the respect of all three, and of the rest of his players. He has an exact idea of the way he wants those players to play. One thing he doesn’t have, which could make a world of difference, is time.

Walking from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton into the shit-storm that’s been brewing in Pittsburgh the past few years is analogous to when Pat Narduzzi took the head football coaching job at Pitt. Eddie Johnston put it well; as a first-year guy, you’re just trying to put your best foot forward with what you’ve inherited, and hope you can instill a couple good habits along the way. We probably won’t know what the Penguins are really capable of under Sullivan until he has a training camp to further evaluate that talent and further instill those habits.

Count Crosby among those playing the right way under him, and looking, at last, like himself. Don’t buy that tabloid mularkey about him being a coach-killer. Right sentiment, wrong captain. Let’s just leave it at that.

If anything, Sid is guilty of being too obedient, and consider the style and disposition of the coach he was obeying before Sullivan. The shackles are off now, and Crosby is back to making Crosby-esque plays, aiding an improved power play, and scoring goals like this one:

Evgeni Malkin, also, has developed an immunity to the rest of his team’s sporadic offensive woes. His go-ahead goal against the Blues was a vintage one of his own. Alas, Geno giveth, and Geno taketh away.

Whether or not you agree with the call he was assessed in overtime last week in Carolina that cost the Pens a valuable extra point, Malkin has to realize when you do what he did right in front of an official–even an NHL official–you should expect to get whistled. Once again, it goes back to becoming a creature of better habit, which doesn’t happen overnight.

Sullivan, for his part, won’t get a free pass for his team leaving those extra points on the table with one overtime loss after another, especially if the wrong players are on the ice for 3-on-3, or if the wrong players are on the ice for shootouts. Nor should he. This team used to be money in the bank when games went beyond 60 minutes. Now, not so much. For as tight as the Eastern Conference is anymore, that needs to go back to the way it was, quickly.

There have been myriad problems with “the system” dating back to the middle of Dan Bylsma’s tenure. Sometimes, though, it isn’t the coach’s vision. It’s the people executing it.

David Perron just couldn’t shake “Edmonton Disease.” Patric Hornqvist has a nose for the net, but hasn’t always finished what he’s started–a recurring theme throughout the lineup. Role players like Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, thought to be intelligent offseason acquisitions, have been invisible, Fehr’s above-the-line penalty killing notwithstanding. And there’s no reason Phil Kessel, who, despite the team’s struggles, got off to an okay start, shouldn’t be building upon that start under a more offensively-inclined coach–especially after playing well in Toronto under Randy Carlyle, a very strong-willed man, like Sullivan.

As often as they’ve let their team down, one offseason narrative that has come to fruition is that the Pens’ defense has let them down even more. There was no reason that come-from-ahead OT loss in Tampa Bay should have gotten out of hand the way it did, which started with usual suspect Ben Lovejoy again getting beat like he stole something:

Another embarrassing play by Lovejoy was a momentum-shifter in St. Louis as well:

He will be Jim Rutherford’s albatross until Rutherford makes it right, just as he potentially rectified his bad investment in Perron by trading him for speedier Carl Hagelin, who had success under Sullivan when the latter was an assistant with the Rangers. That said, how much worse could Adam Clendening have been than Lovejoy, given the same minutes? For that matter, how much worse could Matt Murray be in goal than Jeff Zatkoff?

It is not in the DNA of this front office to stray from its win-now course. To wit, when in the position of having to fight for every point, certain chances have to be taken. That’s on the guys in coats and ties–all of them.

The Penguins are better off under Mike Sullivan. Unfortunately, Mike Sullivan doesn’t pass, shoot, score or defend. Unfortunately, for this no-excuse organization, results still matter, and they still aren’t there.

On multiple levels, there’s no better time to start getting them than Thursday night.

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