Earlier this afternoon, the ax finally fell on Pens coach Mike Johnston. After losing to the Kings in a shootout 3-2 at home Friday night, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford finally decided a change was needed.
“I felt it was time for a coaching change because our team has underachieved,” Rutherford told reporters. “Our expectations are much higher with this group of players.
The Pens have been inconsistent so far. Even with the big off-season addition of Phil Kessel, they find themselves with a 15-10-3 record for 33 points. In a strong Metro Division, they are fifth behind the Caps, Rangers, Islanders and surprising Devils who made a wise move hiring former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes away from the Pens organization.
Johnston lasted a season plus. He finishes 58-37-15 with a first round exit against the Rangers. A five-game series defeat that saw Evgeni Malkin blanked while Sidney Crosby finished with four points (2-2-4). There had been issues with a concerned Malkin indicating after a bad 4-0 loss to the Devils on Nov. 14 that there was something wrong. Since, he’s performed much better tallying 14 points (9-5-14) in the last 11 games. His game-tying goal with 1:10 left in regulation on Friday wasn’t enough to save Johnston’s job.
Replacing Johnston is a familiar name to Ranger fans. Former Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan will take over. The assistant who served under John Tortorella was in charge of the Baby Pens. They were 18-5-0 under him. Now, he’ll get a chance to run the Penguins. Rich Tocchet stays as an assistant and veteran coach Jacques Martin remains.
It should be interesting to see how the Pens respond to a more demanding coach. Sullivan last was a head coach for the Bruins lasting two seasons between ’03-04 and ’05-06. He made the playoffs in his rookie year and missed post-lockout. His record is 70-56-15-23. It’s been a decade since he ran a team. What has he learned?
The bigger question is can the Pens improve offensively under Sullivan. Even with Kessel, they have struggled offensively. Even with Malkin, Crosby and Kessel, they rank 27th in goals-per-game averaging a measly 2.36. Just as mystifying, they are tied for 27th in power play with Carolina at 15.6 percent. They average over 30 shots/game but also allow 31.8 which puts them 28th.
Defensively, the Pens have struggled. Kris Letang has been miserable with a minus-14 rating. Olli Maatta just returned and has scored twice. He should help a unit that’s not well put together. The departures of Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin have hurt the blueline. Rutherford has done a bad job. He’s been unable to find suitable replacements. Ian Cole has struggled since re-signing. Rob Scuderi is near the end. They’ve had to rely on Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy, who cost them younger skater Simon Despres. Top prospect Derrick Pouliot didn’t make the big club out of camp. There’s still hope for the 21-year old to come up and figure it out.
If not for the play of Marc-Andre Fleury (13 Wins 2.21 GAA .927 Save Pct.), they’d be in much worse shape. They’ve gotten superb goaltending from Fleury and backup Jeff Zatkoff. Without their play, they’d be further behind in the playoff picture.
For the Pens, it comes down to their best players performing up to a higher level. Malkin leads them with 26 points. Crosby has been disappointing with 19. Kessel also has underachieved with only nine goals. They’re very top heavy. Patric Hornqvist has only five goals. The same amount as youngster Beau Bennett. Chris Kunitz is near the end with four.
They lost favorite Pascal Dupuis to retirement due to blood clots. A tough break for sure. He sounded like a wonderful teammate. Such a shame.
The Pens don’t play again until Monday when they face the first place Caps. That should be an interesting test. They beat them once already. They then have the Bruins for a classic home-and-home. The Rangers don’t see them until next calendar year.