Mike Sullivan took an interesting path to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Originally drafted by the New York Rangers in 1987, Sullivan made his NHL debut with the inaugural San Jose Sharks in 1991. He played in San Jose for three seasons and went on to play with the Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes before calling it a career.
His first head coaching gig was relatively brief. He took over the Bruins in 2003 and led Boston to a division title (but a first round playoff exit). After the lockout, the Bruins finished dead last in a spectacularly strange year of NHL hockey.
After a year off, Sullivan became an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons, then on to the Rangers and from there he followed John Tortorella to the Vancouver Canucks. Upon their firing, Sullivan became a player development coach with Chicago for a season and then started the 2015-16 season as head coach of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
Following a slow start under head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins made a change. So after only a few months as the head coach of Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, Sullivan was the head coach of one of the most talented teams in the league. Where Johnston tried to turn the Penguins into something they're not, Sullivan thrived by letting his players do what they do best.
When the Sharks played Pittsburgh near the tail-end of 2015, the Penguins were not a great hockey team. They posted pedestrian possession numbers and too often relied on their best scorers to back check in support of a middling defensive group. Now, Sidney Crosby and company are free to roam about the offensive zone and the Penguins defenders appear more comfortable with a little experience under their belt.
It wouldn't be fair to the players to credit all of this turnaround to Sullivan, of course. Some of this can be attributed to a change in fortune and perhaps Crosby went through a very real funk that required adjustments on his end. Regardless, Sullivan should get credit for righting the ship in time to see his Penguins make the playoffs and now be just four games away from their second cup in eight years. It's no dynasty, but I wouldn't mine acquiring titles at a similar rate.
Here's an excerpt from a great piece by Adam Gretz, which you should read in its entirety.
They seem to be a more aggressive team on the forecheck in the offensive zone and are far more organized when trying to breakout of the defensive zone, something that was a major issue at the start of the year.
There's more to it than that, and Gretz touches on it, but it seems that Sullivan got in and used trial and error to figure out what line combos work and what didn't and has now found the right recipe. He's an analytical guy, which I don't mean to say that he knows everyone's corsi by heart. Sullivan likes data and uses it to gain a greater understanding of his team.
So if the Penguins struggle out of the gate against the Sharks, don't expect Sullivan to keep rolling the same old lines out there. If San Jose gets a foothold in this series, expect Sullivan to make adjustments. This should be a lot of fun.