After falling to the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, many questions arose about the state of the Pittsburgh Penguins. With an aging core and back-to-back first round exits, general manager Jim Rutherford needed to make some changes. Head coach Mike Sullivan has proven to be a strong NHL coach, but the numbers show that playoff success has recently been hard to come by.
Sullivan’s first three playoff runs with the Penguins resulted in a 38-23 record with two Stanley Cup victories. Since they fell to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the second round in 2018, the Penguins are 1-7 in playoff games.
When former assistant coach Rick Tocchet left after the 2016-17 season to join the Arizona Coyotes as head coach, his presence was missed. Sullivan and Tocchet had a dynamic relationship, as they worked together to put the team in position to succeed. Known as “the Kessel whisperer,” Tocchet was able to connect with former Penguin Phil Kessel, a major reason for the success the two shared in Pittsburgh. Tocchet and Kessel’s relationship is still strong, as the two are with the Coyotes today.
After letting go of former assistant coaches Marc Recchi, Jacques Martin, and Sergei Gonchar, Rutherford knew he needed to hire coaches that would not only build a strong relationship with Sullivan, but push him to be at his best, as Tocchet once did. A shuffling of coaches also showed the players that more is expected out of this group.
The Return of Todd Reirden
Former Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden is making his return to Pittsburgh after coaching the Capitals to a 89-46-16 record over the last two seasons. In both of Reirden’s playoff runs with the Capitals, they faced defeat in the first round. Reirden spent four seasons with the Penguins between 2010-11 and 2013-14, where he worked with the defense and the power play.
This time around, Reirden is joining the Penguins with much more experience. Similar to the Penguins, the Capitals are loaded with high-end talent such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson, so Reirden knows how to handle and connect with elite players.
Reirden and star defenseman Kris Letang will look to rekindle an old relationship after spending time apart. Letang has expressed his excitement to be working with Reirden again, which should lead to a refreshing start to the season for the three-time Stanley Cup champion. Letang played perhaps his best hockey under the guidance of Reirden, averaging .74 points per game, along with being named a Norris Trophy finalist in the 2012-13 season.
From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the Penguins ranked third on the power play at 20.3%. With Reirden back to coach the defense and oversee the power play, the Penguins will look to return to their dominance with the man advantage. The dynamic between Reirden and Sullivan will be fascinating to watch, as the two have combined for 173 regular season wins since the beginning of the 2018-19 season.
Mike Vellucci Is Ready
After spending last season overseeing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as general manager and head coach, Mike Vellucci will join Sullivan’s staff working with the forwards and the penalty kill. Before working with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Vellucci spent time in the Carolina Hurricanes’ organization where he was the head coach of the Charlotte Checkers. In the 2018-19 season, he won a Calder Cup and AHL Coach of the Year.
Vellucci will provide great insight to prospects within the organization, which will be very beneficial for the coaching staff. When Sullivan was hired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, he relied on youth from the AHL. Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Matt Murray were all coached under Sullivan with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and he trusted them to perform at the NHL level. Similarly, Vellucci knows which AHL players could provide the Penguins with some youthful energy.
Rutherford has been adamant in his efforts to keep the Stanley Cup window open. The hiring of Reirden and Vellucci shows that there is belief in this group to make another deep playoff run, with Sullivan leading the charge. The dynamic relationship between Sullivan, Reirden, and Vellucci will evolve over the course of the season, but it will be important for the Penguins to jump out to a fast start.
The Penguins begin their 2020-21 campaign with a battle against the rival Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday, Jan. 13.