Penguins coach Mike Sullivan deserves the Conn Smythe
There's a better-than-zero chance the Stanley Cup will be taken for a ceremonial twirl around Consol Energy Center on Thursday night, and that has folks getting down to some serious business: Handicapping the top candidates to hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy.
It's no easy feat. There's a solid field of competitors this year in pursuit of the most coveted piece of individual hardware in hockey. Sidney Crosby has been a beast, setting the tone for the Penguins with his determined two-way play. Phil Kessel is the only player to post a double-double in goals and assists. Matt Murray has been rock solid between the pipes.
In fact, work your way down the Penguins roster and you can probably make a half-decent case for about a dozen members of that team (and yes, there are a few options on the Sharks as well, but let's not get ahead of ourselves).
Some, however, think the "most valuable" tag doesn't belong to a player at all. One journalist pointed out that Pittsburgh's most viable Conn man has been coach Mike Sullivan.
"I really don't have a reaction to that," Sullivan said at his off-day press conference on Wednesday. "My focus is on trying to win a game. I'm trying to help our players in every way that we can as a coaching staff so that they can be at their best."
Sullivan, of course, isn't eligible to win the award. Still, he's been as integral to this team's success as anyone wearing skates. In his first post-season run with the team, he's displayed a remarkable understanding of the ebbs and flows of his players, and has used that to ice the best possible roster night in and night out.
Look back to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Sensing that Murray was wearing down, he turned to Marc-André Fleury to start to start that pivotal contest against Tampa Bay. The move backfired short-term when the veteran keeper stumbled in an OT loss, but Murray returned to the lineup in Game 6 refreshed and refocused. He's on a 5-1 roll since.
In the same series, Sullivan recognized that rookie Conor Sheary had hit a wall and sat him for Game 5. Invigorated by the break, and a few well-chosen words from his coach, Sheary has played with renewed vigor. He's scored twice in the Final, including the overtime winner in Game 2.
Earlier, Sullivan yanked struggling defenseman Olli Maatta in the second round series against Washington. When Trevor Daley was lost to an ankle injury in the conference finals, Maatta stepped back in with a newfound confidence. He's been one of Pittsburgh's most reliable blue line options ever since.
That's a magic touch. Maybe he's not the MVP, but there's no denying what Sullivan has brought to the table.
Pressed to assess his value to to the club, Sullivan stayed on point.
"The way I look at it, this is the players' game," he said. "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's how we look at it. We put ourselves in a position to have a great opportunity. Now it's our job to take advantage of it. But our players deserve all the credit for bringing us to where we are right now. They're the guys that go through the process every day."
So, maybe he won't take home the Conn Smythe. A new ring would make for a pretty nice consolation prize, though.