When you change coaches a lot of things happen. You adopt a new system, usually some personnel change and some players look completely different. The Pittsburgh Penguins under Mike Sullivan did all of these things. Now just over a month into Sullivan’s tenure we’re going to look at which players the new coach has helped and hurt the most. Today we will start with the positives. Three players the new system has energized. To be honest there could easily be five or six names here, these are just the three that I find most noticeable.
Kris Letang was off to one of his worst early seasons in the eye test and on the score sheet when he was injured. As he rehabbed the Penguins replaced their coach. And since he joined the Sullivan system (which admittedly he had more time to learn before implementing), he’s a new man. In that time, he’s only been kept off the scoresheet in three of 13 games played. He’s tallied five goals and 13 assists, good for 18 points and a ridiculous 1.38 points per game average. He is an assist per game player under Sullivan.
But not only is he scoring he’s playing defense too. He’s been blazing back up ice and getting a stick on more odd man rushes than he may even realize. Plus his pairing with Maatta, the team’s youngest and coolest member, has really helped them both develop into the best versions of themselves.
Letang is at his best when he’s skating quick and reacting with his instincts. The old system made him overanalyze and overthink. The new one lets him stretch his legs and offensive muscles.
If Letang looks like a new man, Sidney Crosby looks like his old self in the best way possible. Like Letang, Crosby was off to the absolute worst start of his career in Mike Johnston’s second season. His start was so bad people were asking if he was secretly injured. He wasn’t. He was struggling mightily though with a career-worst points per game average.
Enter Mike Sullivan. His new system, coupled with a few days off just two weeks in, was just what the doctor ordered. Since the coaching change, Crosby has a strong 22 points in 19 games played. He is tied for the league lead in most multi-point games since the end of December and has a seven-game home goal streak that includes beauties from sharp angles we haven’t see the captain net since before his concussion.
He has been a bear in the face off dot, at one point in the game against New Jersey just before the break he was 10 and 5, good for 66%. His mobility on the power play has been noticeable. You name it and that aspect of his game has improved. He looks like he’s having fun again and when he’s having fun, no one on the other team is.
Remember when everyone wanted to trade Patric Hörnqvist in November? Yeah, they aren’t going to be suggesting that again anytime soon. Thanks to a system that uses Hörnqvist’s biggest asset to its advantage – passion – people are remembering why the team added him in the first place.
At the end of the Johnston era no one had any emotions. Like their coach who stood stoically behind the bench, there wasn’t much in the way of emoting on the ice. Again, Mike Sullivan came in and promptly tossed this notion out the proverbial window.
Remember New Years Eve in Detroit? The Penguins were down and a potential goal for was waived off? Hörnqvist went absolutely nuts. I couldn’t tell you how long it had been since I had seen him look like that. That’s what this team needs from him, to be a spark plug. And his numbers aren’t so bad either. Since that night in Detroit he has 14 points in 12 games. He’s making life for visiting goaltenders hard again and going over the boards every shift with reckless abandon.
Almost to a man this team looks better, faster, more determined and settled in their own skin. Whether it’s Kessel’s blinding speed coming down the wing, Maatta and Dumoulin leading a center drive, or Fleury stopping sure-things all night I could go on and on. This team looks brand new well except for a few very notable exceptions. We will get into those tomorrow.