Penguins coach Mike Sullivan carving his own path

— -- Many think the newest coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a disciple of John Tortorella's. Even though Mike Sullivan served as an assistant coach under Tortorella for seven seasons in stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, the two have very different coaching styles.

"He is so different from me as far as being a coach," Tortorella said during a recent phone interview.

Tortorella, who was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 21 to replace the fired Todd Richards, said he has been haunted by the fact that many in the hockey world place Sullivan in the category of guilty by association because he worked with Tortorella for so long. In fact, Tortorella took it personally that Sullivan was not coaching for that reason.

"It really bothered me that I think I hurt him," Tortorella said. "When I read [about his promotion to Pittsburgh from the Penguins' AHL affiliate], I couldn't have been more excited for the guy. I love the man. He is such a fantastic coach, but he's a better person. That organization's got a terrific coach, and he's going to do a fantastic job there."

When Tortorella and Sullivan were fired by the Canucks after the 2013-14 season, they both agreed to one thing.

"We're done with one another," Tortorella explained. "If I was fortunate enough to get another job or whatever it may be, we were not going to work together because Mike was becoming known as only an assistant coach. I have learned so much from him. He's probably one of the most progressive coaches that I have dealt with. He's always trying to get an edge to help his team. He's always updating himself, as far as the new trends of the game. He's a real student of the game and his own man."

All of his experiences in hockey have helped give Sullivan clarity as to how he can help the Penguins be successful. How will Sullivan handle all those personalities and talents?

"That's the challenge," said Sullivan, 47, a native of Marshfield, Mass. "I'm trying to bring some ideas to the table, and I'm trying to work with these guys and put them in a position where they can be successful and thrive. I have to still manage the team as a whole so that we can be effective as a team. The challenge of coaching at this level is trying to inspire your top guys to buy into your approach and philosophies."

Sullivan played 11 seasons in the NHL for the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes, largely as a defensive center. Retiring after the 2001-02 season, Sullivan was hired by the Bruins to coach their AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins. He became an assistant coach for the Bruins during the 2002-03 season before taking over as head coach for 2003-04 for interim coach Mike O'Connell, who had replaced the fired Robbie Ftorek. In two seasons with the Bruins, Sullivan compiled a record of 70-56-15-23 before he was fired and replaced by Dave Lewis.

Sullivan made an impression on an 18-year-old Patrice Bergeron.

"I learned so much my first year, how to be a professional, and he was definitely one of the big reasons why," Bergeron said. "He gave me a chance and I can't say enough about that. I showed up at training camp and no one really knew who I was and I was supposed to go back to junior, and he still gave me a legit shot to prove myself, which says a lot about the person he is. He's a fair coach, and he's someone that expects you to be at your best all the time, even in practice, which makes you a better player."

One of Sullivan's goals for the Penguins is to create a winning environment. He wants the team to find its identity. He wants accountability on and off the ice. His Baby Penguins were 18-5 when he was promoted.

Even after just a few days with Sullivan at the helm, captain Sidney Crosby has already seen changes.

"It's been good," Crosby said. "Everyone has to prove themselves again with a new coach and earn their ice time and the responsibilities they want on the ice. We had a pretty good game to start off ... and hopefully we can build off of that and it'll translate into some wins here."

Inheriting players of the caliber of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang can't be an easy task for any coach, given the different strengths and weakness of star players. Since he arrived in Pittsburgh, Sullivan has talked to the team as a group and also held individual meetings with players.

Whether he's the right fit or not in Pittsburgh is up for debate. The Penguins have gone 0-3 since the change.

"Not too sure," said one Western Conference scout in a text. "But I am not sure it will be on him. He has to find a way to get their best players playing that way; if not, he won't do well. He says all the right things and I think he can be a players' coach to certain guys, but [it] will be interesting to see."

"Ha, we'll see," is all one Eastern Conference scout would say in a text.

Sullivan is learning all about his new players, and he's hoping they will let their guard down a bit and trust him to do what it takes to win.

"The star power I have on the team, they're very hard workers," Sullivan said. "They work extremely hard and I admire that about them. I admire their work ethic. I admire their care. So the challenge for us is to find a way to be successful."

Everyone probably has an idea how Tortorella would handle a roster like Pittsburgh's. His iron-fist mentality wouldn't work. Sullivan's approach will be different.

"There are all different personalities on that team, and the one thing Mike Sullivan is going to do -- I will guarantee you this -- he is going to try to empower them, but he is also going to hold them accountable," Tortorella said. "That's one of Michael's strengths. He's a good people person. He wants to help them.

"He wants that room to sustain itself. He's going to give them every opportunity. But if he thinks it's going down the wrong road, he's going to straighten it out and he's going to hold everybody accountable, no matter if it's a young player or veteran guy or the stature of some of the people on that club, and that's how you win."

It's been nearly 10 seasons since Sullivan was a head coach in the NHL, but Bergeron believed the coach is prepared to help the Penguins.

"He's been around for so long, he's learned from other coaches and players," Bergeron said. "As a player, every year you become a better player and understand the game better and you have more experience, so as a coach it's the same thing. He's been around [as a coach] for over 10 years, so I'm sure he's even more ready for this challenge."

The Penguins and Tortorella's Blue Jackets will face off on Dec. 21 and both coaches have circled that date on their calendars.

"I cannot lie to you," Tortorella said. "I have thought about that, and I know he's going to do everything he possibly can to get that team to win. I'm going to do the same with my team. I'm looking forward to it because I have so much respect for him. He's probably one of the hidden gems in our league. People don't realize how good of a coach this guy is, and it's going to be a true test for me and our team when we play them."

No matter what fans might think, Sullivan is his own man.

"They broke the mold after they made Torts," Sullivan said with a smile. "It would be tough for this planet to have two Torts. We're very different."