The Penguins’ season is one quarter finished, and the team’s MVP (Most Valuable Person) is an obvious choice, in my opinion.
Head Coach Mike Johnston.
Yes, Sidney Crosby is a front-runner for the Hart Trophy, and Evgeni Malkin has been excellent, but I’ll hand out the highest award to Johnston, so far.
Johnston has been a breath of fresh air for a team that stagnated under Dan Bylsma. Bylsma gave the Penguins a jolt when he infused the team with an offensive focus they had lost under Michel Therrien. Eventually, Bylsma’s dump and chase style of offense stopped producing results and started causing the Penguins to make early exits in the post-season.
Under Johnston, the Penguins are carrying the puck in more, dumping it in less, and the early returns have been very positive, to the tune of a 14-4-2 record through 20 games.
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The team has played better defensively, and save for a disappointing weekend against the Islanders, hasn’t repeated many of the same mistakes twice. The power play has looked crisp, Marc-Andre Fleury has been better, with a save percentage about 15 points higher than his career average, and the team in general appears deeper, more steady, and more well-rounded than in recent years.
Those are all great things, but Johnston’s biggest positive contribution is that he’s made the regular season interesting again.
I’ll cop to being one of the people that takes regular season hockey for granted. Or at least, I used to. The Penguins’ wealth of talent ensured that the playoffs were a lock before the season even started, and with the same script playing out night after night, following the team was both pleasant and monotonous.
The mantra “nothing matters until the playoffs” started to dominate my thought process to the point where I wasn’t even enjoying the highly entertaining product put out by the team on most nights.
Seeing the same cast do things the same way with mostly the same result got boring. The fact that each full season of Bylsma’s tenure ended in playoff failure only served to make my regular season malaise worse.
Johnston has changed that, for now. Listening to him talk hockey is a treat, because while he hasn’t yet revealed any kind of humorous side to the public, his answers and thought processes are direct, matter of fact, and interesting. Johnston is confident without being cocky, insightful without being too revealing, and not given to clichés.
He’s also not afraid to make changes.
After this weekend’s pair of losses to the Islanders, Johnston did something that qualifies as drastic in the Penguins’ universe. He separated Crosby and Chris Kunitz, who has been better at playing alongside Crosby than anyone else.
The fact that Johnston made the move tells me a few things: First, he wasn’t worried about potentially upsetting Crosby to make a move he felt was necessary. Second, he understands how important it is to jump start Crosby in the event that his production lags. Before the switch, Crosby had scored one goal in 11 games. He got one against Boston, which may well spark him into another scoring streak. Third, it showed that Johnston sees the regular season for what it is; a time to tweak lines to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Too often, Bylsma placed too much focus on wins and losses in the regular season, and the Penguins never seemed able or willing to adjust in the post-season as a result.
Johnston saw the Penguins scuffle against the Islanders and made a change that not only snapped them out of their mini-funk, but also may have yielded a line combination that works well.
I may be reading too much into things, but the fact that switch went off without any problems tells me that the players have bought into Johnston’s philosophies and respect his day to day approach. Given that he had never been an NHL head coach prior to this job, that wasn’t a given.
The Penguins certainly aren’t a lock to make a deep run in the playoffs, but they absolutely look like a better team than they were last year. The mood around the team seems improved, and I get the sense that the players are actually having fun again.
Plus, the regular season games actually have some meaning again, and don’t play out according to script. For that reason alone, the Mike Johnston Era is so far an unqualified success.
More about Mike Johnston
- ARTICLE: Winning streaks are fun, until they end
- ARTICLE: Pens look to keep momentum going as they hit the road
- ARTICLE: Pens overcome early deficit, rout Devils 8-3
- Mike Johnston hired as new head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins
More about Dan Bylsma
- ARTICLE: Pens Pregame Notes: Crosby not worried about scoring drought
- ARTICLE: Pens Insider: Orpik likely out for series opener
- ARTICLE: Letang cleared to practice, but full return remains unclear
- ARTICLE: Pens hear Bylsma loud and clear