PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins had a specific vision last summer when they examined the rubble of a first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. General manager Jim Rutherford, coach Mike Sullivan and his staff then spent the off-season revamping a team it believed would be good enough to return to the Stanley Cup.
It worked during the regular season. Then, following a four-month break, it didn’t. The Penguins were outplayed by the seemingly overmatched Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round, losing the best-of-five series in four games.
The result was "puzzling" to Rutherford and "disappointing" to Sullivan. And it ended up costing assistants Sergei Gonchar, Jacques Martin and Mark Recchi their jobs. The team announced Wednesday all three would not have their contracts renewed following a second straight post-season flameout. The contracts originally expired at the end of June but were temporarily extended for the playoffs.
"These guys are good coaches, and they’re my friends," Sullivan said. "We’ve been through a lot together as a group. But when teams with high expectations such as ours don’t have success, then change is inevitable."
Rutherford spoke Tuesday about the importance of helping an aging roster get younger in the coming months. The plan now includes finding fresh voices to help Sullivan get his message across.
"We just thought we needed to change the dynamic of our coaching staff," Rutherford said in a statement. "We have very high standards here in Pittsburgh, and we want to continue competing for Stanley Cups. The message to our fans is that `We are not rebuilding, we’re re-tooling."’
Martin joined the Penguins in 2013 as an assistant under Dan Bylsma following head coaching stints in St. Louis, Ottawa, Montreal and Florida. Martin moved to an advisory position in June 2014 but returned to the bench shortly after Sullivan was hired in December 2015.
Gonchar, who played 20 years in the NHL as a defenceman — a run that included winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 — became a full-time assistant for Pittsburgh in 2017 shortly after the franchise won its fifth Stanley Cup.
Recchi, a three-time Cup winner during his 22-year career, joined Pittsburgh’s organization in 2014. He was promoted to assistant coach when Rick Tocchet left in 2017 and was in charge of a power play that struggled during the season despite having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Sullivan, who signed a contract extension last summer that runs through the 2023-24 season, will stay on. He is aware that shuffling his staff won’t be an option if the Penguins can’t find a way to make a deeper run next season.
"We all have to take responsibility for it," Sullivan said. "It starts with me."
Sullivan, who is 214-115-40 in four-plus seasons with the Penguins, believes he still has the ear of the core that includes Crosby, Malkin and defenceman Kris Letang. He pointed to Pittsburgh’s solid regular season — one in which they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference despite injuries that sidelined Crosby, Malkin and All-Star forward Jake Guentzel, among others — as proof his system predicated on speed and "playing the right way" still resonates in the dressing room.
Still, it didn’t translate to the playoffs. The Penguins were badly outplayed after taking a two-goal lead in Game 3. The Canadiens scored the final five goals of the series to send Pittsburgh into an extended break with plenty to ponder.
Last year, the answers seemed obvious. They traded forward Phil Kessel and signed perpetually energetic Brandon Tanev to a long-term contract while trying to play a simpler game, one that can be difficult at times for a team with high-end talent that tends to fall in love with its own highlight-making ability.
This time, the answers may be more difficult to pin down. A change likely awaits in goal, where Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry are both restricted free agents. Malkin, Crosby and Letang figure to remain. And there isn’t a ton of money to spend in free agency. The answers — whatever they end up being — will likely need to come from within.
"It’s disappointing for all of us, the players included," Sullivan said. "I know we’ve got a committed group from a work ethic standpoint. But we’ve got to translate that into results. And we fell short this year."