With his team outside the playoff mix and his franchise player in quiet revolt, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford finally fired head coach Mike Johnston on Saturday, replacing him with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Mike Sullivan.
The right move? Absolutely. The Penguins have been one of the season's clear disappointments, bogged down by an underperforming offense, a miserable power play, and a defensive scheme that sucked the life out of the team's stars and fans alike.
But if the Pens are going to get this season turned around, it can't be the last move he makes. In fact, by throwing Johnston under the bus now Rutherford has started the countdown on his own tenure. Because construction, not coaching, is Pittsburgh's real and lingering problem.
But first, Sullivan. He's an interesting choice, far more experienced at this level than Johnston was when he was handed the job. He's already served two years as a head coach in Boston in 2003-04 and 2005-06 and six more as the top lieutenant to John Tortorella in Tampa Bay (07-08), New York (09-13) and Vancouver (13-14).
He's had some success along the way, but wasn't necessarily revered in those positions—Rangers beat writer Larry Brooks said Sullivan alienated more players than Tortorella by the end of his tenure on Broadway.
Still, there's logic in his hiring. He's done an admirable job with the Baby Pens, who are off to a sizzling 18-5 start that has them in first place in the AHL. The team plays hard at both ends of the ice, and ranks among the top three in goals for and against. He's already familiar with the players and he's sure to bring in a system that will re-balance responsibilities. In other words, he won't demand his centers drop so deep into the zone and then skate 160 feet on the attack. That should be well received by Sidney Crosby, who has bristled at having to change his game and has been a shadow of himself as a result.
Most important though, he brings a different demeanor to the room. By all indications Johnston was relatively quiet, a thoughtful speaker. Sullivan might not be a classic paint-peeler, but he is prone to make his points more forcefully. And that might exactly what this largely veteran group needs.
“I do see (Sullivan) as a guy that’s really demanding and a take-control guy,” Rutherford told the media Saturday. “In some ways—I actually hate to do this, but it’s in my head now—he reminds me of a coach that I had a lot of success with, Peter Laviolette.”
Fair enough. But Rutherford gave Laviolette a better balance of talent in Carolina than Sullivan will have to work with.
True, much of that is on the previous administration. Ray Shero airmailed picks and prospects around the league in several failed win-now efforts that turned the organization's talent pool into one big shallow end. But Rutherford, a curious hire to clean up this mess after he oversaw the decline of the Carolina Hurricanes, hasn't done himself any favors since taking over, especially in his tear-down and hurried rebuild of the back end.
Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff were allowed to walk as unrestricted free agents during his watch. Simon Despres was swapped to the Anaheim Ducks for Ben Lovejoy. That's forced Rutherford to pick up scraps from around the league to fill in the blanks. Take a look at the defense heading into Monday's critical showdown with the red-hot Capitals: Lovejoy, David Warsofsky, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Rob Scuderi, Adam Clendening and Ian Cole.
Admittedly, that would look better if Kris Letang was in the mix instead of on IR for the next two weeks rehabbing an upper-body injury. But even if the former All-Star was skating on the first pair, that's a below-average group by NHL standards. There isn't a coach alive who can change that.
And that should be Rutherford's real concern now. Pittsburgh's Cup-contention window is open, but it won't be forever. Crosby is 28. So are Letang and Phil Kessel. Evgeni Malkin is 29. Marc-Andre Fleury, the team's MVP to this point, is 31.
Just making the playoffs isn't going to cut it in Pittsburgh. Not with this core. And with the Pens up for sale, everyone will be up for review sooner or later.
So it's up to Rutherford. Does he want to go down as the guy who made the easy call and left it at that? Or the one who solved the team's real problems and gave his core a real chance to win?
There are about 10 weeks remaining until the NHL's trade deadline. Let's see what he'll make of them.