Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford notified Mike Johnston and Gary Agnew that they were relieved of their duties on Saturday morning. WBS head coach Mike Sullivan will take over as head coach and Jacques Martin moves to the bench as an assistant coach alongside Rick Tocchet. Here is the transcript of his remarks to the media.
Opening remarks: The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a coaching change. I want to thank Mike Johnston for his contribution to this team. He’s a very smart and good hockey guy. I’d also like to thank Gary Agnew. But I felt with where we are right now and how we’ve played over the first part of the season, this team has more to give. We have some areas that we have to be a lot better with. We have to have more will to win. Our power play has to be better. Really, over the last couple of games, I saw a team that did have more fight in their game and did have more will to win. But I look at this snapshot over the first 27 games and felt that we’ve underachieved. So I made this decision. I told Mike this morning. We will present the new coach to you tomorrow. It’s going to be Mike Sullivan. I’ve got to know him a little bit better and I believe he’s the guy that can come in and really take control and really make some guys more accountable than when we’re not performing at the level that we think we should be. Jacques Martin will go on the bench and be on the ice now along with Rick Tocchet as the assistants. But we’ll get to that, introduce those guys to you tomorrow.
Jim, how much besides the team not performing were you concerned about your stars not producing at their regular levels, especially your captain, and how much of the coaching change do you think can help Sidney Crosby get back to what we’ve seen of him over the years? Well, we never know what a coaching change is going to do. I felt that we needed to make a change. I do think we need to get more production out of some guys, but I also recognize that the game of hockey isn’t what it was 10, 20 years ago where you have teams dominating games and winning games on a regular basis by three, four, five goals. The game is changed. There’s more parity. It’s a lot tighter. But with that being said, I do expect more production out of some guys.
How much of this was about results? I’m sure that’s first and foremost. But besides that, how much of this was about not making proper use of the team’s assets and playing extremely defensive, conservative style? In fairness to our coach, part of this falls on me because I didn’t get the defensemen that was necessary to have more movement from the back end. I think more puck movement from the back end generates more scoring opportunities. So I do see a little bit of a change right now with the addition of (David) Warsofsky. He can skate, he can move the puck. Olli (Maatta) is now getting back into the groove, he’s jumping into the play. (Brian) Dumoulin’s getting more used to things; of course (Kris) Letang can do that. So maybe we’re at that point that without making a trade, maybe we’re going to get more movement. But certainly, we do expect more offense. You have to have a team that understands how to play defensively and how to tighten up when you have a lead and is able to be a team that can compete in the playoffs under that style, but at the same time we have enough offensive players that we should be producing more.
How much of this had to do with Daniel Sprong and his lack of playing time? You mentioned accountability before. How will Sullivan be able to make some of the star players accountable whereas Dan (Bylsma), towards the end of this tenure, and Mike (Johnston) maybe have not? You’re going to have to ask Mike and he’s probably not going to answer, he’s probably just going to say watch. But I do see Mike as a guy that really is a demanding and take control guy. in some ways, I actually hate to do this but it’s in my head now so I’ll do it, Mike Sullivan reminds me of a coach I had a lot of success with – Peter Laviolette. But it’s probably (easy) for a guy to stand here and explain what he’s going to do different. I made those comments (about Sprong) earlier in the week, but we didn’t have a huge difference in opinion. It happened that some other guys were starting to progress, (Sergei) Plotnikov and some of those guys. But at the same time, we do have a time period here with Daniel Sprong to see whether he’s ready to stay and can he contribute at this level or not. Even with what we’ve done, it’s still been good for Daniel’s development. He’s learning the league, he’s learning how to practice at a higher pace and things. But now hopefully he gets a little more ice time. We’ll see how he does here over the next 10 games and see if he should still stay here. But we have a very good player in him, obviously.
You have a couple guys you’ve kept as assistants who have head coaching experience. Why Sullivan? One, I wanted to keep those guys because they know what’s gone on here. In Mike Sullivan’s case, I wanted somebody new to come in that the players aren’t going to totally know. He can come in and mold what we’re doing going forward and really, like I said a little bit earlier, take control of the situation of what needs to be dealt with. I think it would be harder for those guys that were already here and the players know them in a certain way. They don’t totally know Mike Sullivan, but they’ll get to know him.
Did something change with the way Mike went about his coaching tactically? You look at the first two months, when he first started you guys were very open. Your power play was extraordinary. There were injuries, but it kind of looked like he changed and he wasn’t necessarily on the same page as the way you’ve built teams in the past. Did you sense that? I don’t think he changed. I think if anything, maybe the players changed and maybe understood how to deal with him or if they did things a certain way or did things their way, that was going to be okay. But we’ve been making some progress in certain areas as to how the team’s played, but not to the level we needed to as to what our expectations are. If you just take the power play alone, I think it’s fair to say we probably win three more games. It puts us at the top of our division. We’re not far from the top of the division, but we’re not far from the bottom either. So that’s where I had to weigh this out. What’s the right time to do it? But it’s never a comfortable time. It’s bothered me. But I felt it was necessary.
How much did Mike’s personality and style differ from what you expected him to do in terms of holding guys accountable when you hired him? I don’t think it’s changed. I think it’s more of getting used to what you’re dealing with and what the players are dealing with. Then the players get used to the coach and what they can do and over a period of time, how do you end up dealing with that? I guess what we all point to all the time is the obvious one is the power play? How do you make players accountable for that? Do you give them a chance to do it their way, and then if it doesn’t work, try it the coaches’ way and if it doesn’t work, take them off? It seems kind of strange in Pittsburgh, I would think, if you take our top players off the power play. But this is part of the reason we have a new coach, to see how he’s going to deal with that.
As part of the underachieving, did you feel like the players stopped buying into what Mike was preaching and did any of those guys ever come to you and say we need a change? No. I think for the most part, a lot of our players respected Mike. And for the most part, the majority of players have done pretty good. You look at what we tried to change, we tried to change the bottom end of our forwards. Those guys are contributing and probably played the most consistent of any of our players. So there’s some good things happening here. I certainly don’t think that we’ve got a huge issue to fix here. We’re real close to getting where we need to get to. I’d like to add another player or two, and hopefully we can so we can take a good run in the playoffs. But at the same time, this is not something that’s really blowing wide apart and is really broken. There’s some good things that Mike Johnston did and there’s some things that Mike Sullivan is going to have to fix and do better. But no, I would think if you ask the players, I would think a lot of the players like Mike Johnston.
I hate to keep coming back to the power play, but perhaps it’s kind of a microcosm of the situation. Were the players doing it their way, or were they doing it Mike’s way, and is the challenge here for Sullivan to implement what he wants over what the players might? I think we kind of got caught in between. Going back to Rob’s point about the start of last year, it actually worked better than anybody would expect and not at a pace you could keep up with. But it was all new and everybody bought in, and everything went to the net and a lot of times it went in the net. As time went on, we got away from that. We’ve got a lot of highly-skilled players on the power play that can move the puck around. It looks nice, but moving the puck around doesn’t help score goals. I remember our game in LA, I believe our power-play unit was on for the first 62 seconds of the first power play in the game and boy, it looked nice, but we didn’t come close to even getting a shot on goal. I can't remember the last time I saw a goal scored without a shot on the net. So to answer your question, we kind of got caught in between. I think here’s what one group was saying, here’s what the other group was saying and what really makes it work. Now we’ve got to get back to work in doing it the way that it works, getting pucks to the net, getting people in front of the net. I said this earlier in the year, it’s not easy to score goals in this league. But there’s ways to do it and certainly our power play should be a lot better, which will win more games for us.
At what point did you decide this was the right decision? The process started after our weekend with Columbus and New Jersey. I really saw poor efforts. Losing a game is one thing. We’re going to go back and forth with the parity in the league winning and losing games. But it’s about the night’s work that we put in in trying to win that game. And that weekend, to me, was a real low point. That’s when I started thinking about it. I addressed the team. I think we did a little bit better the following week but it was still inconsistent, a little bit up and down. You saw signs of what the team could do and then you saw signs of a team that didn’t look like they had the will to win. So over that period of time is when I really zeroed in on whether we needed to make a change.
You said at the outset you put some of the blame on yourself for not getting more puck-moving defensemen to play the way Mike did. Now that you’re getting a new coach, is that still something that you need to do and is that now possible to get somebody like that on the team with (Pascal) Dupuis’ money being able to be shifted over to LTIR? Well, it gives us more flexibility with the cap space. It doesn’t make it easy to make deals. Everybody’s looking for the same thing. I won't stop looking. I'll try to get that type of defenseman. I do think we’re moving in the right direction because Warsofsky has come in and done a nice job there. He can skate, go back and get the puck before the opposing player and move it. Then I see some real development and improvement in Dumoulin. Olli’s coming along, getting back to himself now. We get Letang back in there. I think we can at least get three pairings that we have one guy in each pairing that can move the puck. But I will continue to try and upgrade in that area.