If they ever publish an updated version of my book Bench Bosses: the NHL’s Coaching Elite then you can add this chapter into the mix because Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan became the newest member of the 50 greatest NHL coaches of all time when he led the Penguins to their second straight Stanley Cup victory last June (in the process becoming the first NHL coach to coach back-to-back Cup wins since Scotty Bowman did so in 1997/98).
According to my rating system Pittsburgh’s second Cup win added 17 points to Mike Sullivan’s coaching value from a +20 at the start of the 2016/17 season to a +37 now that the 2017/18 season has begun. The Penguin’s repeat victory allowed Sullivan to jump 22 steps in rank from 61st to 45th (where he ranks between Jimmy Skinner and Tom Johnson on my top 50 list).
Mike Sullivan has the chance to do something which hasn’t been done in 35 years: to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions—a feat last performed by the late Al Arbour when he guided the Islander to their third straight Stanley Cup against Roger Neilson’s Vancouver Canucks in 1981/82. If he can get the Penguins to maintain desire, commitment, and sacrifice and do the impossible then Mike Sullivan has the rare opportunity to rise even higher in the Top 50 ranks: at best adding 21 points to his value and moving 16 steps in rank to the 29th spot if Pittsburgh can earn triple digits in team points, win the Metropolitan Division, and retain the Stanley Cup once more.
But who is Mike Sullivan and how did he get to the exalted position he occupies today?
Sullivan was born and raised in Massachusetts and played hockey in high school and college in the Boston Area. Although he was drafted in the ?th round by the New York Rangers in the 1987 Entry draft Mike Sullivan chose to complete his college education at Boston University where he played center, scoring 138 points in 142 games for the Terriers.
Mike was a journeyman player in the NHL, playing 11 seasons with San Jose, Calgary, Boston, and Arizona (with two brief stints in the AHL and IHL thrown in for good measure). When his NHL playing career ended in 2002 he immediately took up coaching, working as head coach of the Bruins AHL affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island; guiding the Providence Bruins to the division title only to suffer a first round defeat in the AHL playoffs in 2002/03. Still, Sullivan’s solid performance drew the attention of Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell who tapped Sullivan to be the Boston Bruins new head for the 2003/04 season.
Again, Sully, marshalled his charges to a solid effort, winning the Northeast Division title in a tight race against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators. However the Bruins endured a tough first round defeat when they lost in seven games to Claude Julien’s Montreal Canadiens.
When the NHL lock-out ended in 2005, the Bruins went from first to worst when they finished last in the Northeast Division in 2005/06. Mike Sullivan along with Bruins GM Mike O’Connell were fired as a result. For the next 8 years Mike Sullivan did assistant coaching work: first for Peter Laviolette with the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team during the 2006 Winter Olympics at Turin, Italy; then, later, he worked with John Tortorella, going where Torts went from Tampa Bay to the New York Rangers to the Vancouver Canucks. When John Tortorella was let go by Vancouver, Mike Sullivan broke away from Torts and spent a season with the Chicago Black Hawks as a player development before finally securing a head coaching job with the Pittsburgh Penguins AHL affiliate at Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, PA, a plum AHL coaching assignment because other NHL coaches such as Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma, and John Hynes used Wilkes-Barre as a springboard to enter the NHL coaching ranks. 23 games into the 2015/16 season (where Sullivan had coached Wilkes-Barre-Scranton to and 18-5-0 record) Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford faced with a talented and loaded Penguins roster that was underachieving under its present head coach Mike Johnston, decided to repeat history: doing what Ray Shero did in 2008/09 when Shero fired Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup title that season. Rutherford fired Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan.
In a November 2016 interview this writer had with Jim Rutherford, when asked about why he had chosen Sullivan, Rutherford explained that Sullivan “gave the guys some confidence and a really good boost to get them going in the right direction.”
It was déjà vu all over again, Mike Sullivan demanded accountability and got it. Pittsburgh regained its groove and finished strongly, winning the Stanley Cup; becoming the sixth interim coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup.
In 2016/17 it was déjà vu three times over when they repeated as Stanley Cup champions.
Two years atop the NHL summit is a rough experience which requires toughness and endurance to get acclimated. To stay three years is rarer still and it requires special skills. Only Hap Day, Toe Blake, Punch Imlach, Scotty Bowman, and Al Arbour have done what Mike Sullivan will attempt to do this season: three-peat as Stanley Cup champions. This season will be his sternest test yet as an NHL head coach but he has the team and the talent to do this. What’s required is the will.