By Mike Olson
On paper the Pittsburgh Penguins should be one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League. They have some of the best players in the world, like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who lead to high expectations in the steel city. Unfortunately the talent hasn’t transformed into championships. As a result the team decided to fire head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Gary Agnew. And this isn’t the first time the Penguins have fired a coach midseason.
In February of 2009 the Penguins found themselves 5 points out of a playoff spot and things were looking dull when the organization fired Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Blysma, the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre Penguins (Pittsburgh’s miner league team). Before Blysma’s departure with the baby penguins the team gave him a standing ovation. I remember at the time I was like is this good because they don’t like playing for him, or are they applauding him for being a great coach. Come to find out he was a good coach because he turned things around and the team went on to beat the Detroit Red Wings in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals giving the team their third championship in team history. Later that year Blysma rightfully won the ESPY award for coach of the year.
The next four years were rough for Blysma and the city of Pittsburgh. You have to remember that just making the playoffs isn’t good enough for such a talented roster. And the early exits in the playoffs left fans asking questions on his coaching style and the fact that he couldn’t make adjustments on the fly. He finished with a record of 252-117-32 a feat that also saw him become the fastest coach in NHL history to get to 200 wins. However, in 2014 the team decided to part ways and make way for Mike Johnston who was coaching the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. As a Penguins fan I had mixed emotions about Blysma, but didn’t think firing him was the right solution.
I was never a fan of the hire however you have to give him a chance before you judge him. The team went on to finish in fourth place of the Metropolitan Division and had to win in the last game of the season to clinch a playoff spot, something that should never happen to this storied organization and this talented team. As a result of a sub-par season the Pens would have to face a tough opponent, the New York Rangers. The series went five games, all games being decided by one goal. And while there is no doubt in my mind that the team left it all on the ice they ended up falling short of an upset series win. A couple bounces here or there and it’s a different story, but that’s the sport of hockey. When things aren’t going your way you don’t get those bounces. Unfortunately it seems things weren’t going the Pens’ way very often as of late.
Going into the 2015-2016 season I felt that if the team showed any signs of struggle things would have to change. The team is currently 15-10-3 and are tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference. After a tough road trip to the west coast losing to the Kings and Ducks. GM, Jim Rutherford, told the media that he wasn’t happy with the decisions Johnston was making and said that the Penguins are lacking will and determination. After a shootout loss to the Kings, which proved to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back, the team fired Johnson (58-37-15) and hired Mike Sullivan of the WBS Penguins.
Sullivan has led the baby Penguins to one of their best starts in franchise history with an 18-5 record. And this Penguins fan is happy with the decision the team made and is excited for the change. I just hope the team can muster together some magic like they did in 2009 and bring Lord Stanley back to the ‘Burgh. Because if not, the Penguins have shown that they have no problem pulling the cord on a coach, and winning simply isn’t enough.