Ex-Bruins coach Mike Sullivan lands with Pittsburgh’s AHL club
The Marshfield native is now the head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
On June 15, Mike Sullivan celebrated with the Stanley Cup on the United Center ice. The Marshfield native’s title was player development coach. During the playoffs, Sullivan served as an advance scout.
By the time Chicago faced off against Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks had the book on their opponents, partly because of Sullivan’s reports from the Lightning-Rangers Eastern Conference finals. So while Sullivan’s primary responsibility was monitoring 11 of the organization’s drafted forwards, all amateur players, the former Bruins coach felt full ownership of the Cup.
“The Cup run was a blast,” said the 47-year-old Sullivan. “It was so much fun to watch that team have success. To be a small part of it for me was a thrill. I’ve been associated with the NHL for close to 25 years now as a player or coach. I’d never won the Stanley Cup.”
Last year, following his dismissal from Vancouver after one season, Sullivan found himself in different places. He was on college campuses, visiting with Chicago’s prospects. He debriefed in the team’s offices during pro scouting meetings. He scouted playoff opponents from the press box.
But since his retirement as a player in 2002, Sullivan has been most comfortable behind the bench. So despite his achievements last year, Sullivan is back doing the job he enjoys the most as head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. Sullivan replaces fellow Boston University alum John Hynes, now head coach of the New Jersey Devils.
A decade has passed since Sullivan was last in charge of a bench. In 2005-06, the Bruins went 29-37-16 under Sullivan’s watch. Joe Thornton was traded. Alex Zhamnov, the organization’s free agent fallback after whiffing on Peter Forsberg, flamed out. Andrew Raycroft plummeted from a Calder-winning ace in 2003-04 to a sub-.900 save percentage goalie.
After the season, the Bruins cleaned house. New general manager Peter Chiarelli did not ask Sullivan back. Ten years of experience, apprenticeship, and hard knocks — he’s also been fired by the Lightning, Rangers, and Canucks — did not dissuade Sullivan from returning to the grind.
“It’s not a business for the faint of heart,” Sullivan said. “It’s a business where you get knocked down a lot. You dust yourself off and get back in the fight. You learn a lot about yourself. You clarify your convictions, philosophies, and values. Through the ups and downs of 11-12 years, successes and failures, you become a much better coach in that regard.”
This isn’t just Sullivan’s first job as a head coach since 2006. Of his last four coaching gigs, it’s his first without John Tortorella, his boss in Tampa, New York, and Vancouver. Their last collaboration imploded.
On Jan. 18, 2014, after an opening-line brawl between the Canucks and Flames, Tortorella tried to enter the Calgary dressing room during first intermission. The NHL hammered Tortorella with a six-game, 15-day suspension. It was the worst incident of a season that ended with Tortorella and Sullivan being shown the door.
Regardless of how toxic Tortorella has become, Sullivan does not regret the association. Sullivan credited Tortorella for teaching him, among other things, how to interact with star players. The two remain close friends.
The relationship was initiated and extended because of Sullivan’s desire to learn. Sullivan won the golden ticket early. He ended his playing career with the Coyotes in 2002. His gear barely dried out before he was hired as Providence’s head coach. Sullivan was 34 years old with zero coaching experience. Today’s teams do not designate the final pre-AHL development layer to ex-players who’ve never blown a whistle.
Before he completed his first season in Providence, he was promoted to Boston after Robbie Ftorek was fired. In the summer of 2003, the 35-year-old Sullivan took over the Bruins’ bench. In retrospect, all of it was unfair to ask.
“Like all young coaches, I was trying to figure out the coaching process,” Sullivan said. “You’re trying to define and identify what that process is for you as a coach — where your convictions and philosophies are. You’re trying to clarify that on a daily basis. When I decided to be an assistant with Torts, the main reason was to be beside someone who’d had success and would give me an opportunity to learn.”
The learning has not ended. In Chicago, Sullivan worked for an organization with a singular identity. The Blackhawks hunt for four qualities in their players: competitiveness, puck skills, hockey sense, and speed. They emphasize these elements at every stage, beginning with the teenagers they draft to the veterans that Joel Quenneville and his staff polish off. Three Cups since 2010 are proof that a commitment to identity can manifest in heavy metal as the payoff.
Neither Chicago’s roster nor style resembles those Sullivan coached 10 years ago. Consider some of Sullivan’s defensemen in 2005-06: Hal Gill, Nick Boynton, Andrew Alberts, Milan Jurcina. Now compare it to Chicago’s six-pack.
“They’ve got one defenseman that hits,” said Sullivan, referring to Brent Seabrook. “Then it’s five other guys who don’t hit a soul. They stick check. They’re smart. They use their brains. They use speed, quickness, and stick skills to win puck battles. The players understand what they are.”
Earlier this month, Sullivan and assistant coach Jay Leach continued the learning process. They attended the XOS Digital hockey users conference in Boston. The annual gathering is for pro and college video coaches to discuss the software employed by most NHL teams. The jargon is technical. Most of it is Greek to behind-the-bench coaches.
But Sullivan’s experience as both coach and parent has helped him to understand reality. Young people, like no other generation, mesh with video. It is part of their everyday routine, embedded in the devices that rarely leave their pockets. Using video isn’t just how they learn. It’s how they live. So Sullivan considered it time well spent to learn about a tool he will use every day with the Penguins. He plans to be a good head coach. The good ones teach by learning first.
Offering teams a new perspective
It’s a good bet that in a future practice, when Mike Fisher leans over to take a faceoff, the Nashville center will have a drone hovering overhead to film his technique. The Predators are one of the teams that have expressed interest in the Phantom 3 ($799) and the Inspire 1 ($2,899), two drones manufactured by DJI. The Predators, who are more invested in video coaching than most organizations, are considering drone use to complement traditional fixed-location cameras.
“They really want to use it as an eye in the sky to track players, track specific plays, and track the puck,” DJI marketing manager Michael Shabun said of teams considering drone use. “For example, they really love looking at the overhead shot for faceoffs to see exactly what the player is initiating. Before, you couldn’t really see a lot of things because of obstruction with pads and players. Anything overhead is extremely valuable for these guys.”
Outdoors, the FAA restricts drones from flying 5 miles from airports, over stadiums, or higher than 400 feet. Inside a rink, such regulations do not exist. Teams can employ drones as they like — over the faceoff circles, over the net to film goalies, or near the ceiling to capture breakouts, forechecks, and power-play formations. Currently, teams seeking multiple angles would have to build and break down traditional camera-atop-tripod setups around the rink. Such time is hard to find in a midseason road practice between games.
One user can operate the Phantom 3. Two operators are required to fly the Inspire 1: one to maneuver the drone, the other to man the camera. With either device, video can be viewed in real time (streamed to a coach watching on a tablet from ice level, for example) or downloaded for future viewing. Flight time is between 23 and 25 minutes. Lithium polymer batteries power the drones. In the future, drones may not be just for video coaching. As technology improves and cost decreases, it’s possible the NHL and its rightsholders adopt drones for broadcast coverage.
“The more these things become autonomous and the more pilot error we can eliminate,” said Shabun, “the more receptive organizations will be in including drones in game situations.”
Campbell taking it all in stride
The Flames had little choice but to extend the contract of Mark Giordano, which they did on Tuesday (six years, $40.5 million). Giordano is Calgary’s captain and best player. Had he not torn his biceps last season, Giordano would have contended for the Norris Trophy.
With Giordano, TJ Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, and Dennis Wideman, the Flames have one of the best top-four formations in the league. They would not have received equal value in a trade. They would have become worse had they allowed Giordano to walk after 2015-16.
The tricky thing about Giordano is his age. He will turn 32 on Oct. 3. In the final season of his extension, Giordano will be 38, which is not a kind age to be carrying a $6.75 million annual cap hit. Giordano belongs to the category that includes Zdeno Chara, Dion Phaneuf, Dan Girardi, and Brooks Orpik — defensemen earning market value now, but at risk of becoming expensive at the end of their deals.
Brian Campbell is the exception. Campbell is 36. He signed an eight-year deal worth a little more than $57 million with Chicago on July 1, 2008. As Campbell enters the final season of his contract, the Florida defenseman has been worth his blockbuster payday.
Campbell hasn’t missed a game in four seasons (48 in the 2012-13 lockout year). He’s been a positive possession player in every year of his contract. He led Florida with an average of 23:12 of ice time.
Campbell’s success starts with his skating.
Adam Nicholas, owner of Stride Envy Skating, praises Campbell’s technique, specifically his glide technique, knee bend, and outside edge control. To Nicholas’s eye, Campbell bends his knees at 90 degrees, which allows him to maximize power in his stride. When he’s skating, Campbell brings his feet underneath his body instead of keeping them outside his shoulders in what Nicholas calls a railroad base.
The result: smooth, efficient movement. Campbell can evade contact, conserve energy, and save his stuff for the offensive situations that suit him best.
“Look at Duncan Keith,” said Nicholas. “Same situation as Campbell. Keith has a similar posture. Look at Cam Fowler or Marco Scandella. Watch their skating and ability to maneuver around the rink. It’s phenomenal. It all generates from posture, balance, efficiency, and explosiveness on their outside edges. They all have that. It makes them so dynamic as defensemen.”
Campbell and Giordano do not play similar games. Campbell is an offensive specialist. Giordano is a do-it-all defenseman who can handle the rough stuff.
The Flames require Giordano to play shutdown hockey, which is not always conducive to long-term health and productivity. Campbell leaves the heavy defensive lifting on the Panthers’ blue line to Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson. Getting older on defense isn’t easy. Graybeards such as Chris Phillips, Eric Brewer, and Bryce Salvador did not age well last season. This may be Giordano’s fate at the end of his contract. But defensemen such as Campbell prove it’s not always the rule.
Minor league experience a major asset
Jay Leach had a few connections with Mike Sullivan. In 2005-06, Leach played two games for Sullivan’s Bruins. In Phoenix, Sullivan was teammates with Steve Leach, Jay’s uncle. But what made Sullivan hire Leach as his assistant in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is his coaching potential. Last season, Leach was Geoff Ward’s assistant with Adler Mannheim of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. Mannheim won the DEL championship. The 35-year-old Leach is also familiar with the challenge for AHLers to score NHL promotion. Leach appeared in 70 NHL games but spent most of his career in the AHL. He concluded his playing career in 2012-13 with Albany, New Jersey’s farm team. “He’s not far removed from being on the other side of the locker room,” Sullivan said. “When he speaks in that room, you have to heed his advice. He’s been in their shoes. He’s gone through what they’re going through. He can certainly relate to today’s athlete. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of them.”
Lindholm crosses that bridges
The Hurricanes are pleased with the development of Elias Lindholm. Two seasons of professional experience were enough for Carolina to sign the promising center to a two-year, $5.4 million extension on Thursday. Lindholm’s bridge deal will become active in 2016-17. He is entering the final season of his three-year, entry-level contract. GM Ron Francis is taking a different approach than predecessor Jim Rutherford chose with Jeff Skinner, also extended before his entry-level deal expired. After two seasons, Skinner scored a six-year, $34.35 million extension. Skinner’s contract set the market for Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, also drafted in 2010, to sign extensions before their third NHL seasons. At the time, Skinner had 51 goals and 56 assists in 146 NHL games. In comparison, Lindholm has 26 goals and 34 assists in 139 games. Two seasons into his extension, concussions have kept Skinner from reaching his ceiling. The left wing had 18 goals and 13 assists in 77 games last season.
Focusing on his transition game
The Devils hired Belmont native Patrick Rissmiller as a development coach on Wednesday. The 36-year-old concluded his playing career last season with Ritten Renon in Italy. The former Holy Cross forward appeared in 192 NHL games for the Sharks, Rangers, Thrashers, and Panthers, scoring 18 goals and 28 assists. Rissmiller joins a development staff with strong ties to Massachusetts. Scott Clemmensen was a four-year Boston College goalie. Pertti Hasanen was a former coach at Boston University.
Detroit’s philosophy is to build from within. GM Ken Holland prefers to keep players in Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, instead of rushing them to Detroit. This approach, however, comes with a cost. Teemu Pulkinnen, Landon Ferraro, Mitch Callahan, and Andy Miele, all fighting for roster spots, require waivers to be assigned to Grand Rapids. Last year, the Wings lost Andrej Nestrasil to Carolina on waivers . . . Scott Gomez is one of five players the Blues invited to camp on a tryout basis. Others are Spencer Asuchak, Eriah Hayes, Zach O’Brien, and Evan Trupp. With teams hard up for cap space, there will be numerous tryouts around the league.
While Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton are in Calgary’s long-term plans, Wideman doesn’t fit that category. The 32-year-old ex-Bruin is under contract for two more seasons at $5.25 million annually. Wideman scored 15 goals and 41 assists in 80 games last season, averaging 24:38 of ice time. But at his age and with new contracts due to Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau starting in 2016-17, Wideman will be in a tough spot to land an extension with Calgary . . . Four officials are expected to make their NHL debuts this season: referee Jacob Brenk and linesmen Devin Berg, Brandon Gawryletz, and Ryan Gibbons. . . San Jose signed former Toronto heavyweight Frazer McLaren on Monday. McLaren gives the Sharks heavy weaponry in the Pacific Division arms race. Other division newcomers include Milan Lucic (Los Angeles), John Scott (Arizona), Brian McGrattan (Anaheim), and Brandon Prust (Vancouver), all accomplished chuckers. If you have extra aspirin and ice bags, please send them west.