Joe Starkey: Penguins' coaching moves raise some questions

By Joe Starkey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Hockey

PITTSBURGH - If "ugly" was the word to describe the Penguins' recent coaching purge, then maybe "nice" is the word for the reformation.

First of all, new/old assistant coach Todd Reirden is a nice man. Maybe too nice, if you heard him insist Wednesday that Jack Johnson is a "nice third-pairing D-man."

I'm all for nice. As the great Frank Burns once said on "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H(ASTERISK)," "It's nice to be nice to the nice."

What I'm curious about, however, now that Reirden and Mike Vellucci - promoted from the minors - have been named Mike Sullivan's newest assistants, is this: Who's going to push back on Sullivan? Anyone?

Rick Tocchet could.

Who's going to drop the hammer on players? Who's going to be the NOT nice man, other than Sully himself - and I would imagine his booming voice gets old from time to time. GM Jim Rutherford keeps complaining about his team's lack of energy and edge. Which assistant is going to push those buttons?

Seems to me this staff still needs a guy cut from the Tocchet cloth. Maybe that will still happen. It also seems curious that goaltending coach Mike Buckley escaped Rutherford's purge, but more on that in a minute.

First, Reirden, because he's the biggest story here. He experienced success with some of these players. He also experienced failure. The years 2010-14 were not exactly a golden age for Penguins postseason success.

I like Reirden and respect him. I think he's a good coach. But I thought Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin were good coaches, too. The question is, who are the best fits for this team at this particular time?

On one hand, Reirden has a track record of orchestrating power play success. He helped the Capitals win a Cup as an assistant in 2018, and the Penguins finished in the top five in each of his final three years under Dan Bylsma (although they went just 7 for 49 in the 2014 playoffs, before both lost their jobs).

On the other hand, Reirden's latest power plays in Washington - and as the head coach, that's ultimately his responsibility - wasted just as much talent as the Penguins' power play did this season. Washington's finished just below the Penguins at 17th in the league.

Reirden, like Gonchar, has a commendable history of developing defensemen. But in terms of helping Sullivan enforce a structured approach, which Sullivan greatly desires, consider that Reirden ran a Capitals team that often looked out of sorts defensively after he replaced Barry Trotz. The Capitals were an elite defensive team under Trotz. They were ... well ... not that under Reirden.


"One thing that happened for us in the bubble, our structure didn't seem to be there," Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told reporters after firing Reirden. "We couldn't find a team structure."

Also consider that the Penguins are a team that has radically underachieved the past two postseasons and been cited by their own GM as lacking energy and effort, and that the exact same things could be said of Reirden's Capitals.

MacLellan spoke of the club's "compete level" being "in and out" and described it as "thinking we can play good when we have to play good."

Sound familiar?

I get it: Reirden won't be the head coach here. It's a different job. I was just thinking the radical rearrangement of the staff would represent more of a fresh start with fresh faces and fresh ideas. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's the roster itself that's the issue.

Buckley also has a fine reputation, but it's interesting that he survived, considering he presided over the demise of two-time Cup winner Matt Murray, now on the trading block. Finances factor into that situation, sure, but if Murray had become the elite goaltender the Penguins projected him to be, we wouldn't be talking about a trade. He's only 26.

Buckley appears to have done some excellent work with Tristan Jarry, but Jarry also slipped in the second half of the season.

I just have some questions. That's all. Maybe Rutherford knows precisely what he's doing. That wouldn't surprise anyone. Hopefully, his tenure here doesn't go the way of his ending in Carolina.

Time will tell. It always does - and as you know, time is the one thing the Penguins' aging stars don't have much of anymore.

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