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Get to Know a Penguin: Head Coach Mike Sullivan

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Players need leadership, and no head coach has been more successful in leading his team to success in the NHL postseason in recent memory than Mike Sullivan

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Sullivan
Head Coach

Career Regular Season Head Coaching Record: 200-112-45 (with 15 ties), 130-66-22 with Pittsburgh
Career Playoff Head Coaching Record: 39-23 (two Stanley Cups), 36-19 with Pittsburgh (two Stanley Cups)

Birthplace: Marshfield, MA (US)
Named Head Coach: December 12, 2015

Assets: Might be the perfect marriage of personality to team. Sullivan is a persistent striver who does not eschew the hard work it takes to succeed. This has been a hallmark of the Penguins of the last decade and is, by extension, a reflection of the city in which they work.

Flaws: Are you kidding? Two years, two Cups. Every coach is hired to be fired, which means his flaws will – ultimately and inevitably – become apparent. He has not been with this team long enough to reveal them, at least any obvious ones that can be exploited strategically.

Career Potential: Local Icon

Why you should know who he is: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.” Mike Sullivan is an exception. Having compiled a body of work as a forward who put up modest numbers (54 goals, 136 points) in 709 regular season games over 11 seasons for four clubs in the NHL, he went almost immediately from the ice after the 2001-2002 season to being named head coach of the Providence Bruins of the AHL in July 2002.

It seemed to be a job for which he was born. With the 2002-2003 AHL Bruins, Sullivan had a record of 41-17-9-4. It was enough for Bruins management in Boston to elevate him to the head coaching job with the parent club the following season, replacing Robbie Ftorek. The promotion did nothing to interrupt his success, Boston finishing the 2003-2004 regular season with a 41-19-15-7 record, but the wheels on the Sullivan train got a bit wobbly when the Bruins were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens. After the NHL went dark for the 2004-2005 season, the B’s struggled in 2005-2006, going 29-37-16, and he was a casualty of a change in management, incoming general manager Peter Chiarelli relieving him of his duties in June 2006. At age 37, Sullivan had climbed to the coaching summit and been knocked off.

After his coaching stint in Boston, Sullivan bounced around as an assistant – an assistant with the 2006 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, a year in Tampa with the Lightning, four seasons with the New York Rangers, a year with the Vancouver Canucks. It was in Vancouver that Sullivan got another bite at the NHL coaching apple, serving as interim head coach when John Tortorella was suspended for six games In January 2014. His short stay behind the Canucks bench was not successful, a 2-4-0 record, and both he and Tortorella were relieved of their duties at the end of the season.

After a short stay with the Chicago Blackhawks as a player development coach, Sullivan found his way to northeastern Pennsylvania, named head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ affiliate in Wilkes-Barre in June 2015.

It was a fortuitous development for Sullivan to find himself with an organization that had produced three NHL head coaches (Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma, John Hynes) in the span of a decade. Sullivan did not last long with the Baby Pens, posting a 19-5-0 record with the club before he was promoted to fill the position Mike Johnston was relieved of in December 2015. Sullivan took over a team that was a disappointing 15-10-3 and stuck in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. He and the Penguins finished the season on a 33-16-5 run, won the Stanley Cup, and another sports legend in Pittsburgh was born out of the ashes of a long and difficult coaching journey.

How the Caps can stop him: Pittsburgh has developed, cultivated, and nurtured an aura of invincibility over the past three seasons, breaking the will of teams with the notion of their success being the inevitable outcome. Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups does that. The Caps might be the team best equipped to pierce that veil of invincibility. There are no secrets between these teams, and the Caps are themselves no stranger to playoff experience (just playoff success). And the Caps do have a measure of regular season success against this team over the last few years.

The Caps can stop him – and the Penguins – by taking care of their own business and not getting caught up in “Penguin-Mania” that seems to afflict so many at this time of year. Or, as the late Herb Brooks once put it when facing an opponent who was a heavy favorite to win, “play your game…play your game.”