Can Mike Sullivan turn Penguins around, or is roster doomed?

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 25: Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Mike Johnston talks during his introductory press conference on June 25, 2014 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 25: Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Mike Johnston talks during his introductory press conference on June 25, 2014 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

One day, Mike Johnston’s going to be a hired as an NHL head coach again.

He’s going to have some experience in the big leagues, so as not to be “old what’s-his-name from juniors” again. He’s going to have the personnel – puck-moving defensemen, at the least – that can make his offensive system look functional and be productive. His temperament will fit with the roster, in that the roster wouldn’t be filled with frustrated former champions whose confidence in themselves, their teammates and management doesn’t wane with every scoreless night, missed pass and bad trade, respectively.

He’s going to have all of these things that he didn’t have in just over a season with the Pittsburgh Penguins before his firing on Saturday. And he’ll be successful.

Well, I mean, he was successful in Pittsburgh, to a certain extent. The Penguins were tied in points for the last wild card spot in the East and four points out of the three seed in the Metro when Johnston and assistant coach Gary Agnew were fired on Saturday. They made the playoffs last season and went quietly in the first round. Johnston was hired when the previous regime could only get the Penguins to Game 7 of the second round in 2014.

But we all know what the expectations are in Pittsburgh – simultaneously challenging for a Stanley Cup and another Art Ross for Sidney Crosby – and Johnston wasn’t close to meeting them.

Dejan Kovacevic (sub. required) had an interesting take on why Johnston’s system failed:

Johnston’s system, as much as I appreciate it theoretically when he can activate all six defensemen, relies on a pack mentality. That means everyone starts fairly low on the breakout, with the centers exceptionally low. And that, in turn, means that almost 120 feet of ice need to get covered by all five skaters just to reach the other zone.

Several times in this game, I isolated on Crosby and the rest of the Penguins’ centers, and that’s what they did time after time. All the way back to between their own circles, a couple of passes through the neutral zone, and then they’d penetrate.

Could it be they’ve got nothing left for the finish?

The results weren’t there. The consistency wasn’t there. And increasingly, the effort wasn’t there; and that happens, Johnston might as well just start Yelping moving companies.

“You saw signs of what the team could do; then you saw signs of a team that didn’t look like they had the will to win,” said GM Jim Rutherford, fresh off of dropping Johnston under a bus over player usage last week.

So rather than continuing to hammer the square peg he hired into the circular hole the Penguins continued to dig deeper and deeper – and let’s all recall Johnston was the consolation prize when Willie Desjardins passed on the gig – Rutherford swallowed his pride and admitted a mistake he’s made as Pittsburgh transitional GM.

(OK, it’s not the first time.)

Enter Mike Sullivan. He has head coaching experience in the NHL, leading the Boston Bruins for two seasons before being fired in 2006. He was John Tortorella’s right-hand man with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks before doing a season of player development for the Chicago Blackhawks. He was hired to coach the AHL Baby Penguins after John Hynes left for the Devils, and has an 18-5-0 record. They had 85 goals in 23 games, good for third in the AHL this season.

His greatest asset is, perhaps, volume. He’s loud. Really loud. Drill sergeant loud. Which matches his notable commitment to accountability, which is something Rutherford called out upon his hiring.

“I believe he is the guy that can come in and take control, make some guys more accountable when we’re not performing at the level that we think we should be,” he said.

(BANE VOICE: “Take control… take control of your Penguins.”)

Here’s the first interview Sullivan gave after the hiring, and he touches on trying to make the team better offensively:

Sullivan’s journey to the Penguins has been an interesting one.

He was accused of being too much of a “players’ coach” during his brief time with the Bruins; frankly, after just one season with the Providence Bruins, he wasn’t ready for prime time. But the fact that the Boston roster was gutted by the end of his stint didn't help.

By the end of his run in New York, Sullivan wasn't known as a "players' coach." He was an even worse cop that “Bad Cop” Tortorella, which is quite a feat.

Whatever the approach, it’s now on Sullivan to try to have this Penguins team reach its potential, whatever that potential actually is.

Because he can yell and scream; he can change the offense and juice the power play; he can keep Evgeni Malkin rolling and activate Crosby's game; and it’ll still come down to whether or not this is a championship roster, or a roster that management has deluded themselves into believing could win one.

Coaching vs. construction.

Ask Bylsma about it.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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