PITTSBURGH — No disrespect to Gerard Gallant, Lindy Ruff, or Barry Trotz — they all did excellent jobs this season — but if the Jack Adams Award finalists were named at the end of the playoffs and not before, Mike Sullivan would have to replace one of them.
How could he not? Since taking over for Mike Johnston in December, the Pens have gone from performing damage control on a seemingly daily basis to being one win from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
That’s some progress right there.
Just don’t ask Sullivan to sing his own praises.
“The way I look at it, this is the players’ game,” he said today. “The players are the guys that get it done. They deserve the credit. These guys have played extremely hard. They’ve made the sacrifices that are necessary in order for us to be in a position where we are. That is how we look at it.”
Others see it a bit differently. They see what his team’s done since he became head coach, and they feel he probably deserves a few kudos.
Recall in December that Sullivan’s first order of business was to get the Penguins in a better frame of mind.
“Every coach has their beliefs and convictions that are different from the previous coach,” he said. “But the most important aspect for me is to try and instill a certain mindset that will inspire these guys to be at their best.”
Fast forward to the present and the Penguins have only lost seven times in the playoffs, and all but once they’ve responded with a win. They’ve said it over and over that they believe in themselves, they believe in the process and the game plan.
Now recall the tactical changes that Sullivan intended to make.
“I think it’s important that you have to try to come out of your end zone as clean as you can, and as efficient as you can,” he said. “Preferably, you’d like to come out with the puck and so, we’re going to try to implement some schemes to help us try to do that.”
Whatever schemes he introduced, they worked. Yes, his GM helped the cause by adding some better puck-movers to the back end, but getting from one end of the ice to the other is a team thing. It requires buy-in from the defensemen, the forwards, even the goalies. Nobody can be doing his own thing, otherwise the whole operation fails.
Speaking of buy-in, how ’bout that Phil Kessel?
“I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team,” said Sullivan. “His offense speaks for itself. He’s dangerous on the power play, he’s dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does, is his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink.”
Look, we’re not going to say that Sullivan has turned Kessel into a Selke Trophy candidate, because he hasn’t. And let’s face it, the single, biggest reason Kessel’s been a great fit with the Penguins is he doesn’t have to be the best player on his team anymore, and he’s getting more favorable matchups as a result.
But let’s not pretend that Sullivan has simply allowed Kessel to do whatever he pleases.
“I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win,” said Sullivan. “Those are the types of conversations that I’ve had with him over the last four or five months.”
It’s never an exact science, measuring the impact a new coach has had on his team. After all, we’re not in the room, so we don’t know what’s been said during video sessions or in one-on-one conversations with the players. The only things we can use to judge are what’s said publicly, and of course how the team is playing now compared to how it was playing before.
Even today Sullivan was talking about the need to get better.
“I don’t think you ever arrive,” he said. “I think it’s that insatiable appetite to improve and get better that has allowed this team to get to the point where it’s at. We’re going to keep pushing until we achieve our ultimate goal.”
Sounds like a well-coached team.