For a second there, it looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins would lose a game of coaching musical chairs. But with Mike Johnston reportedly signed to a three-year pact now, the franchise can get back to the job of winning the Stanley Cup.
That has been rather difficult since the team last pulled off the feat in 2009, despite having two of the best centers on the planet in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Under previous coach Dan Byslma, the Pens had a great deal of success in the regular season but haven’t been able to get back to that Cup final, flaming out in various rounds for various reasons.
Structurally, Pittsburgh was not a great possession team in 2013-14, despite the two previously named assets. Kris Letang’s absence due to a stroke didn’t help matters, but ending the campaign with a middling Fenwick close of 50.2 percent has to be seen as a disappointment.
One of Byslma’s mantras for the team in the past was “Hunt,” meaning that the Pens should be hunting the puck down when they didn’t have it, but clearly the team had gotten to a place where they were the hunters way too often.
Johnston, who comes from the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks, hasn’t had that problem in junior. No team even came close to the 338 goals his squad put up this season en route to a fourth straight appearance in the WHL final and in an interview conducted two months ago, the coach told me his strategy.
“Our template is puck possession,” Johnston said. “Skating, up-tempo play. We want to play with pace from our defense to our forwards.”
Johnston will certainly have the tools to continue that philosophy in Pittsburgh. Along with Letang, the team also boasts Paul Martin and Olli Maatta on the blueline and I wouldn’t be surprised if Derrick Pouliot, who has played in Portland the past four years, joins his old coach as a rookie. All four of those D-men can move the puck with ease.
GM Jim Rutherford’s job now will be to bring in some reinforcements up front. The Penguins have been notoriously top-heavy in recent years, but even those Crosby and Malkin lines have been criticized for not having enough talent on the wings.
Johnston’s success in Portland did come with controversy and the back story will surely be mined in the early days of his Pittsburgh tenure. A WHL investigation unearthed alleged recruiting infractions such as extra flights for parents and giving the captain of the team a cell phone. Johnston was suspended for the second half of the 2012-13 campaign and the team lost a bunch of future draft selections. There was also a $200,000 fine levied. Some believe the investigation was a witch hunt orchestrated by the league’s old guard owners, who were sick of Portland and new owner Bill Gallacher winning so often.
Either way, Johnston served his sentence and watched right-hand man Travis Green step up and lead the team to a WHL championship and berth in the Memorial Cup final, where they lost to Nathan MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads. Green went on to coach the American League’s Utica Comets this season and now Johnston is following him to the pro ranks – albeit with a loftier title.
And if Johnston can continue his up-tempo, winning ways in Pittsburgh, the Penguins may just find themselves hoisting another Cup in Steeltown.