PITTSBURGH — The door closed and Mike Sullivan started to talk. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, the Pittsburgh Penguins coach laid out for rookie goaltender Matt Murray why veteran Marc-Andre Fleury was starting Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals even though Murray’s rapid maturation was one of the reasons Pittsburgh found itself two wins from a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
When Sullivan was finished, Murray stood up and left without so much as a word. Really, there was no need to talk. Sullivan had explained himself so thoroughly that Murray didn’t see the point of dragging it out. The fact Sullivan bothered to explain it to him at all was enough.
“With a lot of coaches, they kind of make a decision on the goalies and leave you to it (to figure out why),” Murray said. “Coach Sullivan is probably the best communicator of any coach I’ve ever had. ... I prefer it that way, you don’t go back and say ‘What could I have done differently? What did I do wrong?”’
While Sullivan insists “there is no magic bullet” to explain the Penguins’ rapid turnaround from lethargic underachiever to the Cup Final against San Jose starting on Monday, the link between his arrival and Pittsburgh’s spring awakening is unmistakable. So is the imprint of general manager Jim Rutherford, whose aggressive roster retooling since taking over for Ray Shero less than two years ago have made the Penguins faster, deeper and more resilient, qualities it lacked in abundance when Rutherford arrived.
Only eight players remain from the group Rutherford inherited on June 6, 2014, tasked with finding the right pieces to put around franchise cornerstones Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Fleury. The initial results were underwhelming. Injuries and the uninspired tenure of professorial but hardly charismatic Mike Johnston led to a first-round playoff exit in 2015 and a slow start last fall that eventually cost Johnston his job.
Enter Sullivan, who spent over a decade grinding out a career as a responsible but hardly flashy two-way center. Initially brought in to help mold young talent with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Rutherford turned to Sullivan with the Penguins sleepwalking near the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The connection, Rutherford said, was “immediate.” Even if the initial results — a four-game losing streak in the week after Sullivan was promoted — were not.
“His philosophy on how to play the game suited these players,” Rutherford said. “It was just a matter of time when you put that group together with that coach they come closer and closer and closer together.”
Maybe, but Rutherford didn’t just sit back and wait for the turnaround to happen organically. He continued to tinker, acquiring skilled skaters who would play the kind of 200-foot game Sullivan thrives at teaching. Sullivan’s debut on the Pittsburgh bench — a bumpy 4-1 home loss to Washington on Dec. 14 — coincided with a trade that sent struggling defenseman Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley, an upgrade in both speed and skill.
Pittsburgh paid a significant portion of Scuderi’s remaining salary to help pull it off, a deal the Penguins could only pull off because longtime forward Pascal Dupuis retired earlier in the month, allowing Pittsburgh to put him on the long-term injured list and freeing up money under the salary cap.
“In some ways, our misfortune with Duper became our good fortune as we went along,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford insisted at the time he would put his phone away for a while to give Sullivan time to figure things out. Barely a month later he put together another deal, sending forward David Perron to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin, a move that caught Hagelin — who had just signed a long-term contract with the Ducks after coming over in an offseason trade with the New York Rangers — completely off guard.
Yet like most choices Rutherford — a finalist for NHL general manager of the Year — made this season, it clicked thanks in no small part to Sullivan’s imagination.
Forced to experiment when Malkin was shelved by an elbow injury in March, Sullivan put Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel together. Over the next six weeks they became a catalyst for Pittsburgh’s late-season surge to the point that when Malkin finally returned for the opening round of the postseason, the 2012 NHL MVP was put on what amounted to a third line alongside Chris Kunitz and rookie Bryan Rust.
“I think we were going well as a team and he wanted to deepen our team maybe and put more lines together,” Kessel said. “Obviously it’s worked out well.”
There was no announcement from Sullivan necessary at the time, and Hagelin pointed out Malkin is so gifted “he can play with anyone.”
While Sullivan has proven adept at handling his stars, he has been just as artful when it comes to managing younger players in and out of the lineup. He sat struggling defenseman Olli Maatta for nearly two weeks during the playoffs, making it clear to the 21-year-old what he needed to work on if he wanted to avoid being a healthy scratch.
“He knew that I knew that I wasn’t playing well enough,” Maatta said. “We both agreed on it. He had confidence in me. That was a big thing. He knew I could come back. It was just kind of a wake-up call.”
When Daley went out with a broken ankle, Maatta returned to the lineup energized. Ditto for Murray, who hardly looked shaken while sitting the bench in Game 5 against Tampa Bay. He returned to the lineup for Game 6 and helped the Penguins advance to the Cup Final for the first time in seven years.
“Sully is the type of guy, if he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “He’s very cut and dry. He lets you know exactly where he stands.”