A Yearly Reminder for Penguin Fans: Do Not Underestimate Mike Sullivan

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Another hockey season is upon us. On Tuesday evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins open their season on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens will watch as the Lightning raise their 2020-21 Stanley Cup championship banner into the rafters of Amalie Arena.

In the last two seasons, Tampa Bay has managed to win back-to-back titles, a distinction that only the Penguins could claim to have done in the salary cap era. Of course, that distinction is no longer solely Pittsburgh's.

Tampa Bay is built with loads of talent. They can score at-will, and their goaltending and defense are elite. There is not much they can’t do.

At one time, the Penguins were very similar to the Lightning. For many seasons, Pittsburgh ran roughshod over anyone that stood in their way. They weren’t a huge team and they didn’t play physically. They just outskated every other team. And their speed led to an overwhelming amount of scoring chances which led to a ton of goals. Also, Matt Murray, the Pens goaltender at the time, looked like one of the best goalies in the league.

Since the Penguins last title in the 2016-17 season, a lot has changed across the landscape of the league. Pittsburgh has seemingly fallen towards the middle of the pack. Matt Murray plays for the Ottawa Senators now and hasn’t looked that good in net since winning his second Cup with the Penguins. Even Crosby and Malkin are now 34 and 35 years old, respectively.

We might be in a new era of Penguins hockey, for better or for worse.

Aging Stars and Injuries

One thing that has stayed consistent over the past five seasons is Mike Sullivan’s reputation as a top-end coach in the NHL. Every season the Penguins face adversity through injuries, underperformance, and a lack of available prospects in Wilkes-Barre. Yet, it seems like every season, Sullivan wills this team way further than it should go. When they seem dead in the water, they find a way to turn it all around and rattle off three, four, or even five wins in a row.

All of that success has culminated in him being selected to coach Team USA at the next Winter Olympics.

In the toughest division in hockey last season, the Penguins still found a way to obtain a playoff spot. With an aging core, a shaky goaltender, and being near the top of the league in man games lost, the Penguins still made the playoffs. As bad as that first round loss was to the Islanders last season, one could argue Sullivan had the correct game plan. The Penguins were largely the better team for 85% of that series. Unfortunately, goaltender, Tristan Jarry, seemed more interested in getting an early jump on his offseason golf game.

Sure, any coach that has Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang to deploy on a nightly basis is going to have success. The supporting cast the Penguins have also helps. Talented guys like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Brian Dumoulin do make the job easier for the head coach.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, a quick look at this season’s Opening Night roster shows some of the glaring holes the Penguins have. It looks like Crosby, Malkin, and Guentzel will not play Tuesday night. Crosby should return to play very soon from his wrist surgery, but Malkin is out long-term after undergoing knee surgery. It was reported today that Crosby did in fact practice this morning, but his status for Tuesday's opener remains unsure. To make matters worse, Guentzel is still in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.

Pittsburgh’s first line at practice Saturday afternoon had newly-acquired Danton Heinen at left wing, Jeff Carter at center, and Rust at right wing. It’s not a horrible first line but it’s not what Pittsburgh has grown accustomed to.

The Penguins also lost two capable scorers and power play assets this offseason in Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev. They were both selected by the Seattle Kraken in this offseason's expansion draft, after McCann had already been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tanev was also a key member of the Penguins penalty kill.

Adversity Fuels Sullivan

Alas, despite all this negativity surrounding the Penguins opening night, Mike Sullivan should still give everyone hope. Sullivan’s best coaching jobs have been done when everyone counts the Penguins out.

If you don’t remember, the Penguins were nearly last in the Eastern Conference late in the season when they stormed back and won the Cup upon Sullivan's arrival in 2015. He was behind the bench of the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champion of the salary cap era. He has led the Penguins to the playoffs every year despite an aging core and constantly hearing that the Penguins’ window has finally closed.

The current roster does have some question marks, especially relative to last year. That team looked better on paper than this current one. However, with Mike Sullivan behind the bench, the Penguins are capable of continuing to be a problem in the Eastern Conference. Maybe they won’t win the Stanley Cup again, but to make the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season would be quite the accomplishment.

With Mike Sullivan as the Penguins head coach, I'm not betting against him until he gives me a reason to.