PITTSBURGH, Pa. - New Penguins coach Mike Sullivan believes his team has a chance to be great, and it's up to him to help the players reach their potential.
Sullivan ran his first practice as Pittsburgh's coach on Sunday, a day after the team fired Mike Johnston and assistant Gary Agnew in an attempt to shake up a star-studded group that has underperformed through the first two months of the season.
"I'm a firm believer that the players have to take ownership of their team," Sullivan said. "I believe it's their team, not mine."
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have headlined the team's high-profile roster the last decade. The Penguins then traded for elite winger Phil Kessel during the summer.
Pittsburgh was expected to be one of the top teams in the league, but instead the Penguins are fifth in a crowded Metropolitan Division. The Penguins also have struggled offensively, ranking near the bottom of the NHL with a little more than two goals per game.
The slow start prompted Pittsburgh to let Johnston go after a 58-37-15 record in less than two years with the team.
"It's never a good situation as players," Crosby said. "We take full responsibility. The coach is the one who takes the fall, but ultimately it's on us.
"We've got to be better, there's no question. The expectations are high and we understand that."
General manager Jim Rutherford felt the team could perform better, and Sullivan was a coach who could come in, take control and hold players accountable when they aren't performing.
"For me, I've always had an honest, straightforward approach," Sullivan said. "The only way I know how to do it is through a candid assessment of where we're at and where we need to go.
"I hope that resonates with the players and I can inspire these guys to play a certain way."
Sullivan most recently coached Pittsburgh's affiliate in the American Hockey League and he had the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins off to an 18-5-0 start. Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin, assistants who were retained by the team, will be alongside Sullivan for his first game as coach Monday against Washington.
Sullivan also was head coach of the Boston Bruins from 2003-06 and an assistant with Boston, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and Vancouver. He said much has changed since his last head coaching job a decade ago.
"For me, as a coach, I think you learn through the experiences you go through, both the successes and failures," Sullivan said. "Those experiences can't help but shape who you are and how you react to circumstances and situations.
"To have the opportunity to coach for as long as I have has given me more clarity into how I believe we should play or where my convictions are from a coaching standpoint."
He spent most of his first practice Sunday working on the Penguins' breakout with a focus on coming out of the zone clean and possessing the puck in hopes that it will jump-start the team's talented offensive group.
"Certainly, I've always been a believer that you have to play to your strengths," Sullivan said. "I don't think it's any secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins are built around speed and skill. That has to be an element of our identity as far as how we're going to play."
The Penguins hope Sullivan can help rediscover that missing offensive identity so they can return to the top.
"I'm honoured to have the privilege to coach this group and I have a ton of respect for their abilities," Sullivan said. "Having said that, I'm going to challenge them as their coach to grow and get their game to another level. That's my responsibility. We have to embrace the process and if we do that we'll have our best chance to move forward."