Henne: Sullivan has earned his extension

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan signed a three-year contract extension on Tuesday.

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief

Sept. 1, 2022

To find a clear blueprint for consistent success, look no further than PPG Paints Arena and the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

The Penguins have not missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2005-06 season — the longest active streak in all of North American professional sports — winning a league-high-tying three Stanley Cups in that span.

Head Coach Mike Sullivan, the man who’s been responsible for maintaining that model of success since being hired in December 2015, inked a three-year contract extension on Tuesday that will keep him with Pittsburgh through the 2026-27 season.

He’s earned every penny of that deal.

When Sullivan was named the successor to Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015, Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 and looked to be in serious jeopardy of missing out on a playoff berth. He coached the team to a 33-16-5 record down the stretch (including a combined 14-5-0 record in March and April) to vault the team to the second-highest point total in the Eastern Conference.

On June 12, 2016, exactly six months after he was named head coach, Sullivan led Pittsburgh to its fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history with a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks.

Nearly a calendar year later, Sullivan and the Penguins captured another Stanley Cup with a 2-0 victory over the Nashville Predators on June 11, 2017.

Pittsburgh did it against all odds, becoming the first team in the National Hockey League to win back-to-back championships since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. The team also did it without star defenseman Kris Letang, who missed the entire postseason due to neck surgery caused by a herniated disk.

In the five seasons since 2017, the Penguins have extended their streak of consecutive bids to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they made it out of the opening round just once (in 2018).

An especially tough elimination came this past season, when the Penguins fell to the New York Rangers 4-3 in overtime of a decisive seventh game, blowing a 3-1 series lead and bowing out in the opening round for the fourth-consecutive campaign.

Rumors of a change behind the bench had swirled, but they are nothing more than rumors.

Consider the circumstances of this most-recent elimination. Third-string goaltender Louis Domingue was forced to play the majority of the series with very little notice. Captain Sidney Crosby was dealt a hit to the head by New York defenseman Jacob Trouba and missed much of game five, as well as all of game six. Starting goaltender Tristan Jarry was rushed back from a broken foot injury for the deciding seventh game, and he still managed to give Pittsburgh a shot.

Every team deals with injuries, but the series might have looked a whole lot different had Jarry and Crosby been around for its entirety.

Most franchises across the NHL would love to have a sustained successful culture much like the Penguins have built, and Sullivan has been a catalyst in keeping that culture intact.

Sure, the last five seasons could be classified as disappointments. But the Stanley Cup is regarded as the hardest trophy in sports to win. And Sullivan did it twice in his first two seasons.

That’s a winner.

The offseason was expected to bring about change. Letang, as well as forwards Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, were all free agents that faced the potential of never putting on a Penguins uniform again.

General manager Ron Hextall restructured the team’s salary cap and found a way to not only re-sign these three franchise cornerstones, but also got forwards Danton Heinen and Rickard Rakell to ink new deals with the club.

There were a few deals that saw defenseman swapped. John Marino was dealt to New Jersey in exchange for Ty Smith. Mike Matheson was traded to Montreal for Jeff Petry.

However, the majority of the roster will look identical to the way it did a season ago. Hextall is banking on a team that went 46-25-11 in 2021-22 to replicate a similar level of success this coming season.

With a contract like the one given to Sullivan on Tuesday, Hextall has instilled his trust and belief that Sullivan is the man to guide the ship.

Malkin is 36. Crosby and Letang are 35. There’s not much time left before the core starts to retire, and the Penguins are all but forced to enter rebuild mode.

Enjoy the playoff runs while they still last.

And be thankful that they’ve got a head coach that can get them to the playoffs annually.