June 26, 2014
New Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH – The Penguins finally got their man.
OK, it wasn’t Mike Babcock, the man Penguins fans clamor for. Nor was it Willie Desjardins, the man new general manager Jim Rutherford originally tabbed for the job.
Babcock remains under contract in Detroit for another year while Desjardins, who turned down the Penguins’ offer earlier this week, is coaching in Vancouver.
For now, that’s irrelevant.
Then again, so, too, could be Mike Johnston, the man who was standing at the podium to be introduced as the Penguins’ new coach Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
Whether Johnston goes down as the next Scotty Bowman or the next Gene Ubriaco will depend on how quickly the 57-year-old with no prior NHL head coaching experience adjusts to the game at the highest level.
Johnston, who distinguished himself over the last 20 years, including the last six with Portland in the Western Hockey League, will finally get his chance to prove that he can.
That Johnston’s chance will come with the Penguins shouldn’t be of great concern.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have to look too far back to remember a successful Plan B (see Chuck Noll). Likewise, a coach who never skated a single shift in the NHL can win Stanley Cups, too (see Bowman).
The questions about Johnston shouldn’t be about his resume or the strategy he plans to employ, as intriguing as it sounds. Those queries should be directed toward the team he’ll inherit in the fall.
The biggest question is: Can a room full of underachievers still take direction?
On paper, the Penguins have been one of the best teams in the league October through March, every fantasy geek’s delight. In reality, they’re a fatally flawed group who either doesn’t know how or doesn’t remember what it takes to win.
Worse than being the chronic playoff underachievers, they’ve devolved into the last five years under Johnston’s predecessor, Dan Bylsma. They’ve been as soft mentally as physically, if not more.
No matter who is standing behind the bench, the Penguins remain a playoff team as long as they have a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Whether this new regime under Rutherford, Johnston and new assistant Rick Tocchet can salvage this team and make them anything more than that is the unknown.
Given the rather sorry state of the Eastern Conference where a very average Rangers team just won the Prince of Wales Trophy, it’s not entirely impossible for the Penguins to still contend.
That will fall on Rutherford, though. If the cast that surrounds Crosby and Malkin doesn’t change, it’s hard to envision Johnston’s term lasting the "2-3 years” that his new boss’ will.
But with a three-year contract -- and, presumably, on the cheap -- Johnston is the right man for the job. At least for right now.
If Johnston succeeds, great. If he doesn’t, the specter of Babcock looms large in the not-too distant future.