The first few months of the 2015/16 NHL season were rough times for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sidney Crosby was not himself, to say the least, head coach Mike Johnston was fired, newly acquired Phil Kessel wasn’t producing like he was expected to and the Penguins were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Fast forward less than four months from the December 12th firing of Johnston and everything has changed. The Penguins now sit one point behind the New York Rangers for third place in the Metropolitan and Crosby is tearing up the NHL.
In the 28 games the Penguins played under Johnston this season, the Penguins posted a score adjusted CF% of 48.3, good for 19th in the NHL. In the 48 games since then under Sullivan the Penguins trail only the Kings in that department with a mark of 55.8%. Under Johnston the Penguins were 25th in the league in 5v5 goal scoring. In the 48 games under Sullivan they lead the league in that department- two goals ahead of the Washington Capitals. Before December 12th, the Penguins sat 15th in high danger scoring chances +/-. Since December 12th they trail only the San Jose Sharks in that department with a mark of 136. The third place Kings have a HSC+/- of 80.6 in that time frame and 74.8 less HSCF than the Penguins. Maybe the most impressive part about all of this is that the Penguins have continued on their torrid pace while missing Malkin for the past 19 games.
An obvious factor in the Penguins turnaround has been the resurgence of Sidney Crosby. The conversation has turned from “what the hell is wrong with Crosby?” to “what the hell is wrong with Crosby making everybody else look bad?” In the 28 games prior to the coaching change Crosby was posting a P/60 of 1.6. Post December 12th Crosby has posted a staggering 3.2 P/60, for reference Patrick Kane has 2.3 P/60 in that time. Crosby has climbed to third place in the NHL points race after sitting literally hundreds of spots back in the first 28 games.
When Kessel was traded to the Penguins in the summer even his biggest doubters predicted big things, but his Penguin career didn’t get off to a great start. In the three months Kessel played under Johnston, he was putting up a disappointing 1.4 P/60 but he’s been much improved since then, posting 2.3 P/60. His CF% also improved dramatically from 50.1% pre coaching change to 56.4% post coaching change. Although his CF%Rel hasn’t improved much which would suggest the improvement in that area has just been a product of the team’s dramatic improvement.
Just about the only thing that hasn’t improved for the Penguins since their coaching change has been goaltending. Up until December 12th the Penguins were third place in 5v5 sv% with a mark of .938. Since then that total has come back down to earth and sits at .926, or 13th in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury no longer has to stand on his head every night, he now merely has to be good and he has been.
Looking at all these numbers I would argue Mike Sullivan should win the Jack Adams Award, although in recent years the award has simply gone to coaches of teams who rode an unsustainable PDO into the playoffs. In that case, Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers would be the recipient this season on the back of Henrik Lundqvist. Which is funny because if the playoffs started today the Penguins and Rangers would meet in a first round match up. Buckle up King Henrik, you’re about to eat some (more) rubber.
No team will want to meet the Penguins in the playoffs, Malkin or no Malkin. So, what has changed for the Penguins since those early season struggles? In a word, everything.