By Rob Rossi
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins coach Mike Johnston watches from the bench during the season opener against the Ducks on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
What new Penguins coach Mike Johnston already has done is vital, even if it wasn't evident before Thursday night.
“The biggest thing we needed was to have no gray areas,” forward Brandon Sutter said. “We needed somebody to say, ‘This is how it is.' Coach has said that.”
Implementing a new system is never easy, and Johnston's system ... .
“It's not the system that matters,” Sutter said. “It's the coach that gets the team to play the system.”
Now we're getting somewhere. Now we're into why the Penguins needed a new coach.
The problem was never Dan Bylsma's system, just like the problem was never Michel Therrien's system. Those systems could not have been more different, but they mostly worked whether they featured stretch passes or traps in the neutral zone.
At least, they worked when the players listened.
There were times last season, even after victories such as one at Washington in March, when the Penguins won and players such as Craig Adams lamented a lack of “playing the right way.” Adams sounded a lot like Jordan Staal had after a loss in October 2008 at Phoenix when Staal lamented a lack of “doing the right things.”
A cliched quote becomes revealing when it is said a certain way. Adams offered his with a wide-eyed smile. Staal provided his with a furrowed-brow sneer. Neither player shouted. Both players spoke plainly. Each man seemed equally puzzled and disgusted.
Players who have experienced success know when something has gone so wrong that it cannot be fixed. I've long believed Staal knew that night in the desert what I now suspect Adams knew that evening in the nation's capital: The players had stopped listening. Coaches are cooked when that happens.
Johnston is just warming up, but more than one game is required to effect change. He'll need more than a few weeks of practices, meetings and video sessions. His new players say Johnson is detailed and wastes no time offering unnecessary words.
Like Bylsma, Johnston fully commands language. They differ on the delivery. Bylsma went for the give-and-take. Johnston gives only what he wants taken.
Also like Bylsma, Johnston inherited a club at a crossroads.
It's easy to forget how bad off the Penguins were when Bylsma replaced Therrien in February 2009. That's because they went 18-3-4 to finish the season and claimed the Stanley Cup. With 25 games remaining, the Penguins were five points out of a playoff spot, and they had won only 12 of 32 games over a span of about 12 previous weeks.
The coach whom new general manager Jim Rutherford has hired to push these Penguins back to elite status is no longer in junior hockey, but it isn't the worst thing if Johnston makes his professionals feel a little bit more like junior players.
After all, junior players have fun. How often last season did we see Crosby have fun?
We saw less of it in 13 playoff games than in the opening 20 minutes Thursday night. He let out a roar after scoring about seven minutes in, and he backchecked throughout as though he wanted to end this season as the MVP, points leader and best defensive forward.
Junior players are expected to follow a schedule. How often in past seasons did Kris Letang waste energy by spending at least 20 extra minutes at a morning skate to work on individual skills?
He tried that last month before an exhibition game. Johnston promptly spotted Letang and ordered him to the dressing room.
Junior players' shifts are short. How often has Malkin stayed out too long since he joined the NHL?
Johnston said Thursday morning shifts should last 40 seconds. Malkin's first shift went 55, his second 73. To be fair, Malkin had not played a game in almost five months.
Besides, Rome can't be rebuilt in a day, and the Penguins were never the NHL version of the Roman Empire. Their run was one championship and a runner-up and a whole lot of disappointment.
The history of this franchise is one of highs (three titles) and lows (two bankruptcies), and many, many coaches blowing the loudest whistle. Two (Pierre Creamer and Ivan Hlinka) barely spoke English. Another coach (Eddie Olczyk) was a broadcaster who had no coaching experience.
The 21st man to coach the Penguins has caught his players' attention by putting them through post-practice gassers. There's never a gray area when it comes to gassers.
“We'll know him better when he goes through some ups and downs,” new defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said, “but so far the thing I've noticed is he knows what he wants, and he seems to have everybody listening to him.”
That means Johnston was off to a strong start in his new, challenging job before anything happened here Thursday night.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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