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Penguins' Sullivan starts molding new team identity

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH – Mike Sullivan preached the importance of establishing an identity following his first practice as the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Sunday.

One day after replacing former coach Mike Johnston, Sullivan ran a practice that focused on breakout passes, something he thinks will be a necessary facet in Pittsburgh's new identity. Throughout the practice, which began with a 3-on-3 drill through cones and the losing team doing pushups, Sullivan conveyed his messages thoroughly enough they could be heard throughout Consol Energy Center's lower bowl.

Sullivan attempts to implement a certain level of clarity with his coaching, which led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League to a league-leading 18-5-0-0 start to his first season as their head coach before being named Pittsburgh's coach Saturday.

"For me, I've always had an honest, straight-forward approach," Sullivan said. "I hope I can inspire these guys to play a certain way. My hope is that we can work together to try to create a consistent game plan. For me, the only way I know how to do it is through an honest and candid assessment of where we're at and where we can go. I hope that resonates with the players."

Sullivan's first chance to introduce the Penguins to his approach came Sunday morning.

"I shared my philosophy as a coach, what I believe in with them. I talked about creating an identity as a group," Sullivan said. "We'll speak towards that. We'll define that. We'll work towards that. I think the importance of creating that identity, down to a man, is what's your contribution? I challenged them to embrace the process. I told them that hockey's a hard game. It's a hard sport. It's hard to win. We've got to embrace the struggle here. We have to embrace the process."

Throughout the 50-minute practice, Sullivan called the Penguins over to their dry-erase board several times. The sessions were lengthy as he attempted to get his point across.

The difference between Sullivan's practice and those under Johnston was considerable. Forward Beau Bennett described his first impression of Sullivan as "deliberate" compared to Johnston's more "soft-spoken" demeanor.

Sullivan hopes to build an identity with the Penguins, but not necessarily his own. He wants the players to determine who they are.

"I think, for me, you get to know people from spending time with them," Sullivan said. "I'm going to spend time with these guys. I'm going to be around them. I'm going to make my assessments and we're going to interact. I'm a firm believer that players have to take ownership of their team. I believe it's their team, not mine."

With that said, Sullivan does see some areas he thinks his philosophy could help improve, including the Penguins' lack of offense. On the way to a 15-10-3 start under Johnston this season, Pittsburgh ranked 26th averaging 2.36 goals per game.

The Penguins defense fared much better, ranking sixth at 2.32 goals per game. Sullivan doesn't expect the defense to suffer under his leadership. Instead, he hopes it remains steady as an offense led by forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel ignites.

"I don't think it's any secret the Pittsburgh Penguins are built around speed and skill," Sullivan said. "So, that has to be an element of our identity as far as how we're going to play. But, for me, it doesn't stop there. I think part of an identity is a mindset. It's a team that's difficult to play against and how you create that. It's a team that doesn't defeat itself by a lack of discipline, a lack of structure or a lack of commitment.

"I've never been a believer that you have to sacrifice defense. I think the way you win in this game is two-fold. You have to score goals to generate offense and you have to keep them out of your net. From my experience being around it, I don't know that it's a tradeoff, per se. I don't know that you have to cheat to create offense."

The Penguins might not immediately change lines in order to facilitate that offensive spark. Their lines and defensive pairings remained the same during the Sunday practice, but Sullivan said "everything is on the table" regarding the possibility of tweaking the lineup against the Washington Capitals on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SNE, SNO, SNP, CSN-DC, ROOT).

Even if the lines remain the same, Pittsburgh's focus will change. Sullivan will emphasize breaking out of the defensive zone cleanly to generate speed through the neutral zone, which can lead to the scoring chances the Penguins have lacked.

"I think it's important that you have to try to come out of your endzone as clean as you can, and as efficient as you can," Sullivan said. "Preferably, you'd like to come out with the puck and so, we're going to try to implement some schemes to help us try to do that. We're going to work on that a lot, and that's going to be a point of emphasis.

"From my experience of being around teams, I think teams that come out of their endzone in an efficient manner have the best chance to create offense, the type of offense that you're looking for. That was the main focus of the practice today. It'll be something we'll work at consistently to try to get better at and we'll try to create a competitive advantage of it."

With their third head coach in as many seasons, the Penguins don't expect an entirely smooth transition. Sullivan understands it will be difficult, but wants to instill the mental strength necessary to find success in the NHL.

"What I'm going to try to do with this group is we're going to try to define a team game, he said. "We're going to try to define what it means to play the right way, down to the details. We're going to work on that daily. We're going to come to the rink every day and try to get better. That's what I told them.

"I think we can't get overwhelmed by the circumstance. I think we have to focus on the process and just have an unwavering commitment to that process of trying to get better, trying to improve, trying to define what we are as a group and how we continue to work towards that in order to give ourselves the best chance to win."

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