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KINGSTON, Mass. — As Mike Sullivan stood outside Indian Pond Country Club on Monday night, a few rays of sunshine still evident in the Massachusetts sky, he couldn’t stop smiling.

Sullivan sounds pretty convinced the sun hasn’t set on his Pittsburgh Penguins, either.

The head coach was beaming about the blockbuster that Kyle Dubas pulled off over the weekend.

“I’m very excited,” Sullivan said. “And I know I’m not the only one who is.”

In the aftermath of the Erik Karlsson trade, Sullivan has spoken with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. All three, according to their longtime coach, are ecstatic about the deal.

“I think he’s a guy that is going to make an immediate impact on so many levels,” Sullivan said. “This was a very unique circumstance. It’s hard to get these kinds of players. You add someone like him to our group that we already have? It’s hard not to be excited.”


Erik Karlsson’s legacy has always been tied to Pittsburgh

Having defensemen of Karlsson and Letang’s caliber on the same roster, Sullivan said, gives the Penguins advantages that other teams simply won’t have.

“I basically feel like we have two No. 1 defensemen now,” Sullivan said. “Erik is going to add an element to our game (transition offense) where we were already pretty good. He’s going to take it to an entirely different level. To have Erik and Kris Letang on our blue line, to me, it just changes the entire dynamic of our hockey team. These guys are so unique, so special. One of these two guys is going to be on the ice for the majority of the games. They both have that rare ability to log huge minutes of ice time. So, when we were talking about the potential of this trade happening, it’s exciting for me just talking about all the possibilities that we’ll be able to utilize with these guys.”

Sullivan has turned coaching the uber-talented into something of an art form.

Crosby, Malkin and Letang will all tell you that he’s the best coach they’ve ever had. Sullivan has helped all three of them, along with Phil Kessel, win championships.

In Karlsson, the Penguins now employ one of the great offensive defensemen in the sport’s history. He’s not, however, the kind of player who paints between the lines. There’s not an abundance of structure in his game. Karlsson is a free spirit on the ice if ever there has been one, perhaps even more than Letang.

“And that’s OK,” Sullivan said. “It’s been my experience that players like this require a great deal of latitude so that they can act on their instincts. As a coaching staff, I think it’s going to be incredibly important to let Erik play the game in that way, to trust his instincts. Because those instincts are part of what makes him special. Now, the challenge will be making sure that there’s at least some structure in his game and that he’s predictable enough so that his teammates can read off him. But I don’t want him to feel like he can’t use his instincts out there.”

While the acquisition of Karlsson is being almost universally praised in the hockey world, the reigning Norris Trophy winner isn’t exactly known for being a stalwart in the defensive zone. Sullivan has his own opinion on that.

“I’ll say this,” Sullivan said. “If you have the puck most of the time and you have the ability to get out of your own end … guess what? You don’t have to defend as much.

“I think Erik and Kris both deal with that kind of criticism at times,” he continued. “They’re both capable of defending. They’re both real competitive guys. And listen, we are going to hold them accountable in terms of defending. It’s hard to score your way to championships. I’ve always said that. It’s hard to win championships in the absence of defense. Regardless of how much talent you have or how much offense you can create, it’s not very often that you’re going to just score your way through the playoffs. You better play well on both sides of the puck.

“Erik and Kris, they can play defense. I know they can. They’ll be held to a certain standard when it comes to playing defense. But I also know that players of that ilk are sometimes labeled as not being very good defensively, which I don’t always think is fair.”

Sullivan prefers to see all of the positives that the duo of Karlsson and Letang should bring to the table.

“They both have that special ability to move the puck,” he said. “They drive offense. They will help us break out of our own zone far more efficiently. That ability they have to move the puck, it will help us avoid having to defend on many occasions. I really think this is a very important element of our team game.”

The power play is an important element, too.

Karlsson and Letang have both been power-play quarterbacks for more than a decade. The smart money is on Karlsson taking that job.

Will there be any issues regarding who plays where on the power play?

“No,” Sullivan said. “It’s not a concern. We’ve already had that conversation with both guys. We’ll continue to have that conversation with both guys. I believe there is going to be enough of an opportunity for both of these guys to play a huge role on our power play. I also think it’s important for us to understand that we all have to make sacrifices to win championships. Kris and Erik both understand that.”

Sullivan is grateful that Dubas pulled the trigger. The Penguins haven’t won a playoff series since 2018 and it’s pretty clear their roster needed a shakeup. Dubas delivered a seismic facelift, but the Karlsson move on its own was massive.

“I don’t know if ‘stale’ is a fair word to describe where we were at the end of last season,” Sullivan said. “But I do think our dynamic needed changed. This is going to be a very good thing for our team.

“A player like Erik gives us a better opportunity to contend,” Sullivan continued. “There’s not one person who feels good about how last season ended. Not one. So, we are all looking forward to the opportunity ahead of us. We just have to go out and earn it now. When you add someone like Erik, I just think it makes you better in a lot of ways.”

It’s safe to say the summer of Dubas has been good to Sullivan.

“This guy is impressive,” he said. “From my standpoint? I think he’s been great. He’s so collaborative. We speak almost daily. I love how he communicates. He’s been so open and transparent with me in terms of asking questions about where the team is, and where our needs might be.”

And now, one thing the Penguins no longer need is a No. 1 defenseman.

“I just think this is a great thing for our hockey team,” Sullivan said. “Having Erik and Tanger on the same team is a rare opportunity and I think it makes us a much better hockey team.”

(Photo of Mike Sullivan: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)