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Mike Sullivan's impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins (Trending Topics)

Mike Johnston had a lot to work with when he was head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He did not put it to the best use.

While many of the problems related to his firing were not necessarily in his control, he certainly didn't do himself any favors either. For instance, one of the hallmarks of his tenure was a low shooting percentage. While usually you would say that even over the course of 100 games, percentages can still be a little weird, at some point you have to wonder why that's happening.

Meanwhile, the Penguins have emerged as a powerhouse under Johnston's replacement, Mike Sullivan. They look like a completely different team even if you might say they are being governed by the same philosophical principles. Under both coaches you'd hear all about an aggressive forecheck, getting defenders up in the rush, and everything else that's simply becoming the common language of the NHL. Almost every successful team in the league is doing these things now, and those that aren't doing it yet can be expected to follow suit over the next few years. 

We've learned a lot about the game in a relatively short period of time, even with the constraints our current data collection efforts provide. However, there's still a lot of obvious wiggle room in how those philosophies are actually put into action.

There were clearly reasons for the Penguins' decline in offense, fueled by shooting percentage. Even as Johnston embraced progressive philosophy on the best way to attack — on the rush, with hard zone entries — the systematic way in which the Penguins generated shot attempts was continual deferral to the last man in. Of course, if you're the last man in, you will typically be shooting from way outside the high-percentage areas.

Now, was that the reason Sidney Crosby's production cratered? Probably not, or at least not entirely. Again, sometimes bad things happen to good players even for long periods of time. Ask Ryan Getzlaf about that for a non-Johnston-related example.

But there is an impact in scoring efficiency. Over Johnston's tenure, the Penguins' number of high-danger chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey was effectively tied for 12th in the league, which isn't a bad number but it's also not one you'd expect to see from a team with talent of that caliber. That will have a negative effect on shooting percentages, and indeed the Penguins' success rate of just 7.3 percent was tied for eighth from the bottom of the league over that time. Just not good enough.

Sullivan, meanwhile, has demonstrably constructed an attacking system in which the Penguins get far deeper into the zone, push defenders back, and generate high-quality chances and rebounds to an extent not really seen anywhere else in the league. Three teams have cleared 13 high-danger chances per game since Sullivan was hired, playoffs included. It should come as no surprise that two of them are Pittsburgh and San Jose. (The other one being Columbus: Okay, that's weird.)

Obviously this is a “process” thing that is going to result in a lot of goals. You watch the Penguins in attack and you can just see that they're lethal in a way they weren't with much the same roster under Johnston last season. The addition of Phil Kessel to the offense goes a long way as well, of course, but experimenting with how he fit in wasn't something Johnston did well, and that's probably a big reason why he lost his job. Sullivan figuring out that putting Kessel on the third line makes the Penguins uniquely dangerous is perhaps something that you just arrive at over time. But still, he got there and everything worked as it was supposed to. Can't hold that against Sullivan, certainly.

But even with all this understood about the high-level job Sullivan has done with Pittsburgh this season, it's tough to say he's getting proper credit for how terrifying the Penguins' assault is. Granted a lot of things have changed over the past two-plus years, but there was no evidence in what the club was doing under either Dan Bylsma or Johnston that they had this in them.

Corsica's expected goals number is included here to show what the team “should have” been scoring.

Based on these rates (which include this year's playoff run), we can clearly see the Penguins were probably a little better than mediocre the two and a half seasons or so before Sullivan took over. Now they're electrifying in every way.

The speed with which they've attacked everyone is getting plenty of headlines, absolutely. They are lethal through the neutral zone because they have three lines and two pairings that can flat-out skate. The way they've used the wings against the San Jose Sharks isn't especially reflective of how they used the whole ice against Tampa, but that speaks to their versatility, and the amount that speed-as-a-weapon gives you the ability to throw out different looks within the same system.

They're more than speed on rushes and counterattacks, though. Even when they're not necessarily entering the zone with speed and breaking down defenses, the ability to get deep in the zone and create chances from the cycle and forecheck (particularly through generated turnovers) is perhaps second to none in the league.

Meanwhile, it would be all well and good if Sullivan had simply made the Penguins a team that generates nearly a shot attempt per minute. It's a truly an incredible number; only 6 out of 270 have cleared 60 score-adjusted attempts per 60 minutes since 2007-08. But he's also made them stout defensively.

Most of their events-against-per-60 stats rank somewhere between fifth- and eighth-fewest in the league, which would be good for anyone, let alone a team this good offensively. Those numbers are more or less in line with what the team was doing under Bylsma. People kind of forget how good the Penguins were when Bylsma was still there, or at least the extent to which his systems allowed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to excel, because depth was still a major problem.

But defensive play got worse under Johnston, in some aspects. They were ceding more time, but fewer high-danger chances and shots. But the more time you're giving up, the more time you're not scoring yourself, so that thins out the margins for error.

One thing Pittsburgh has gotten particularly good at under Sullivan, as pointed out yesterday by Travis Yost, is limiting second-chance opportunities and rebounds. Those tend to go in a lot more than average shots, even those from the same distance, so not giving those up is a big reason why the Penguins have made Matt Murray look so good in this postseason. 

Because the Penguins are so good in their opponents' zone and their own simultaneously, it should come as no surprise that just about every percentage-related stat has them among the best in the league these days. They're second in corsi-for, high-danger chances-for, and goals-for. They're first in shots-for and expected-goals-for (the latter by a mile).

All of that goes a long way toward explaining why this team is on the verge of winning a Stanley Cup.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.



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