Pittsburgh — Mike Sullivan is sticking around to see if he can get the Pittsburgh Penguins back to the Stanley Cup.
The coach whose arrival in the winter of 2015 helped propel the Penguins to championships in 2016 and 2017 agreed to a four-contract extension on Friday that runs through the 2023-24 season. The terms of the new deal will kick in when Sullivan’s current contract expires at the end of the upcoming season.
Sullivan was entering the final year of a three-year contract he signed in December 2016. The extension provides the fiery 51-year-old a sense of relief and also plenty of time to help Pittsburgh retool after getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Sullivan said he “never really considered” testing free agency next summer.
“I just knew I wanted to be the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins,” said Sullivan, who is 174-92-34 with Pittsburgh.
The extension is a lucrative vote of confidence from Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford, who expressed concern about the need for a culture change inside the dressing room after the Penguins slogged through much of 2018-19 before the earliest playoff exit of the Sidney Crosby era. Rutherford made it a point to place the onus for making the change on the players and not the man who became the first head coach in 60 years to win Cups during each of his first two years on the job.
“Mike has done a great job delivering four, 100-plus point seasons with our team,” Rutherford said in a statement. “To win back-to-back Stanley Cups in this era speaks volumes of him as a coach.”
Sullivan clashed at times with prolific but temperamental forward Phil Kessel, whom the Penguins traded to Arizona last week for Alex Galchenyuk, among others. Pittsburgh also sent defenseman Olli Maatta to Chicago and signed versatile forward Brandon Tanev to a six-year deal on the opening day of free agency earlier this week.
“We’re certainly a faster team,” Sullivan said. “I think we’re harder to play against. I think the enthusiasm and the energy that these guys have already shown with the opportunity that’s already in front of us, in particular they’re circumstances in coming to the Pittsburgh Penguins and being part of this team, I believe that energy and enthusiasm is contagious and I think that alone I think is going to benefit all of us when we go back to training camp.”
Sullivan has preached about “playing the right way” from the day he took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015, a pet phrase that helped the Penguins create an identity focused on speed and solid defensive play. Though Crosby remains a perennial Hart Trophy candidate and Pittsburgh is still one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, the Penguins have slid defensively since raising the Cup for the fifth time in franchise history in 2017.
Rutherford hinted during Pittsburgh’s season-ending news conference that the front office had no problem with Sullivan’s methods.
“Mike has proven he is a tremendous leader for our team,” Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse said. “Our trust in him as a coach has continued to grow since winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first two years. Mike has a championship mindset and he is the right guy for our team, the organization and the city of Pittsburgh.”
Sullivan is the third-winningest coach in Penguins’ history, trailing only Dan Bylsma and Eddie Johnston. He is 9-2 in playoff series and his 38 postseason wins rank second behind Bylsma. Yet the glow from the championship parades has faded, and Sullivan is eager to begin the process of getting the Penguins back to the top now that his job status is secure well into the next decade.
“I’m excited about the group of players we have,” Sullivan said. “I believe we’ve got a group here that has the potential to be a very competitive hockey team. And now the challenge is for all of us, to come together and bring that to fruition. But we certainly like the group that we have.”
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