The Pittsburgh Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston Saturday afternoon, naming Mike Sullivan as the replacement coach.
The Penguins were 58-37-15 under Johnston over the past two seasons. The Penguins made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season last year but were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal; the Penguins lost the series 4-1. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had an excellent series, but the Penguins failed to score more than one goal in each of the team’s four losses.
“I want to thank Mike Johnston for his contributions to this team,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I felt with where we are right now, and how we’ve played over the first part of this season, that this team has more to give. We have some areas where we need to be a lot better. We have to have more will to win. Our power play has to be better.
“Really, over the last couple of games, I saw a team that did have more fight in their game and did have more will to win, but I look at this snapshot over the first 27 games and felt that we’ve underachieved,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford also admitted that not all the blame should be placed on Johnston.
“In fairness to [Johnston], some of this falls on me,” Rutherford said. “I didn’t get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end. I think more puck movement from the back end generates more scoring opportunities. … But at the same time, we have enough offensive players that we should be producing more.”
Sullivan has been the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, this season. He has led the AHL Penguins to an 18-5 record so far, good enough for first place in the Atlantic Division.
But Sullivan has plenty of NHL experience as well. Sullivan coached two seasons with the Boston Bruins. He has also served as an assistant coach for the Bruins, Lightning, Rangers and Canucks. He was a player development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks last season when the team won the Stanley Cup.
“I believe [Sullivan’s] the guy who can come in and really take control and really make some guys more accountable when we’re not performing,” Rutherford said. “He really is a demanding and take-control guy. And in some ways … he reminds me of a coach that I had a lot of success with, Peter Laviolette.”
Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet will remain with the team. Jacques Martin will now be on the bench as an assistant coach. Sullivan will be introduced as the new coach today.
The Penguins also fired assistant coach Gary Agnew.
What does this mean for the Penguins?
This move is not shocking, as the Penguins are 15-10-3 so far this season, but it is surprising nonetheless. It was widely known that there was mutual interest between coach Mike Babcock and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby when Babcock was in search of a new team this summer. At the time, current Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford came out and said he liked what Johnston had done with the team (especially in the hard-fought playoff series against the Rangers) and wanted to stay with him. That is what makes this move surprising. There’s no guarantee Babcock would have signed in Pittsburgh, but it certainly could have been an idea more seriously entertained had Rutherford not been set on Johnston.
When asked why the coaching change was made, Rutherford said that the team has “underachieved” this season.
This is fair. The Penguins have not played well this year. After a stellar offseason that saw the Penguins acquire players like Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, etc., the team has been underwhelming. The Pens had improved their play after a players-only meeting, but things seem to have unraveled a bit once again. It is not a bad decision to fire Johnston, as there really is no excuse that this team isn’t scoring five goals a night. However, one could imagine that it would be frustrating for Penguins fans and to players, like Crosby, to see this happen. It’s possible Rutherford wanted to make some type of change to wake everyone up; after all, everyone says the coach is the first to be blamed. But is Mike Sullivan really going to be able to step in and turn things around?
On the one hand, yes. It really should not be that difficult to coach such a talented team. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it’s certainly easier than taking over a mediocre hockey club. The team has struggled defensively over the years, but it’s really the offense that has been the issue this year.
At the same time, while Sullivan does have NHL experience, is he really ready to step in to this situation and lead this club to the playoffs and beyond? Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t getting any younger, so any type of “adjustment period” Sullivan may need to adapt isn’t too practical. While the core of the team should be around next year, the team has not looked better on paper than it does now in quite a while.
However, things in Pittsburgh are definitely not settled. Rutherford was quoted as saying “I think, for the most part, a lot of our players respected [Johnston].” Considering the organization is trying to diplomatically part ways with Johnston, this is a very bizarre and, to an extent, revealing comment. Based on rumors and speculation, one would have to assume that Crosby was not one of those players who respected Johnston due to his fondness of former coach Dan Bylsma and to his interest in Babcock. But no matter how players felt about Johnston, will this move make the situation any better? It seems clear that there are underlying issues in Pittsburgh that need to be addressed in order for this team to move forward. But only time will tell…
Featured image credit: Gene J. Puskar-Associated Press