The Departed - Steve Sullivan - 07-27-12

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Steve Sullivan.

Roughly 13 months ago, Penguins fans were in a frenzy.

The courtship of exiled former captain Jaromir Jagr was in full swing. It would have been a storybook ending. Having the man who defined the franchise in the late 1990s and early 2000s finish his career with the Penguins would have been magical.

It ended up being tragic.

After Jagr's agent, Petr Svoboda, ignored the Penguins in the days leading up to the start of free agency, the team took its offer off the table. Jagr would sign with the rival Flyers.

Still needing a top-six winger with some acumen on the power play, Ray Shero turned to a familiar face from his days with the Predators in Steve Sullivan.

Sullivan arrived in Pittsburgh with a reputation for two things. Skilled play and injuries.

A former 30-goal scorer, Sullivan was past his prime, but was still capable of playing on the top two lines as complimentary player to the Penguins' skilled centers.

But injuries had sapped him of his effectiveness much of the past half decade. in 2010-11, he was limited to 44 games due to various ailments. Back injuries forced him to sit out part of three seasons from 2007 until 2009.

Signed to a one-year contract, he was a safe option with little risk.

Initially teamed on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, Sullivan's numbers were pretty lean as he only produced three assists in 13 games during October. But the team's much-maligned power play looked better right off the bat with Sullivan working as its quarterback on the point. In a season-opening 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver, Oct. 6, the Penguins went 2 for 3 with the man advantage.

Sullivan would not score his first goal with the Penguins until November. In a 3-2 road win against the Kings, Nov. 5, Sullivan took a pass from defenseman Kris Letang down low on the left wing and snapped in a wrister behind goaltender Jonathan Quick from a tough angle for a power-play score:

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While his goal-scoring chances were few and far between, Sullivan's ability to deal the puck, particularly on the power play was very evident. During a 6-3 win against the Avalanche, Nov. 15, Sullivan was able to sneak a pass off the left wall to James Neal on the other side of the crease for an easy goal:

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Injured captain Sidney Crosby would return to the lineup in late November but returned to the sidelines in early December when his concussion symptoms resurfaced. That would prompt head coach Dan Bylsma to switch his lines in a road game against the Islanders Dec. 10. Chris Kunitz would be moved to the first line with Malkin and Neal while Sullivan was sent to the third line. Despite the demotion, Sullivan managed to produce a goal and an assist that night.

Sullivan would remain on the third line for the next several months, but his place on the first power-play unit was cemented. Sullivan sparked a comeback 4-2 win against the Hurricanes Dec. 27 by hammering a one-timer of a power-play goal by goaltender Justin Peters:

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As the season wore on, something unexpected happened. Sullivan stayed healthy. Plagued by leg issues the previous season, Sullivan's wheels were strong for most of the season. That was never more evident than on this breakaway goal in a 4-3 shootout win against the Stars, Feb. 29, when he blew by defenseman Alex Goligoski:

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By the time Crosby returned in mid-March, Sullivan had returned to his place as one of the team's top six forwards. As Crosby got his legs back and eventually took over the team's second line between Sullivan and fellow winger Pascal Dupuis. That trio would produce at a healthy clip. That trio would combine to produce nine points during a 5-2 road win against the Sabres, March 30:

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As the regular season ended, Sullivan ended up appearing in a surprising 79 games and scored a respectable 48 points, 21 of which came on the power play. From a team perspective, the power play, while somewhat inconsistent, improved quite a bit from the previous season. In 2010-11, that unit was 25th in the NHL at 15.8 percent. With Sullivan operating at the point in 2011-12, it surged to 19.7 percent, fifth-best in the league.

Entering the postseason, the Penguins were seen as the favorite for the Stanley Cup due in part to that power play. As it turned out, that unit was a large part of their undoing. In Game 2 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, an 8-5 rout by the Flyers, the Penguins' power play was burnt for two shorthanded goals by the Flyers. Sullivan was on the ice for each of them:

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Sullivan and the Penguins' power play was hardly without it's bright moments. In a do-or-die Game 4 in Philadelphia, the Penguins blasted the Flyers, 10-3, thanks in part to this end-to-end rocket of a power-play goal by Sullivan:

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Overall, the Penguins' power play produced an impressive nine goals on 29 chances. But it just wasn't enough to overcome the Flyers' special teams which produced 15 goals, 12 on the power play and three on the penalty kill. The Penguins would lose in six games.

As the Penguins pursued the high-profile Zach Parise in free agency, they put the option of re-signing Sullivan on the back burner. With Parise's decision dragging out for a few days, Sullivan opted to move on and joined the Coyotes as a free agent July 4.

Arriving as a safe second option, Sullivan excelled past the modest options management had of him and helped the Penguins' power play realize its immense potential.

(Photos: First-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Second-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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