By John Toperzer
My first impression of the new Penguins coach, Mike Johnston, is that he’s old – 57 to be exact.
If the Penguins hired him to work with young players, because he coached WHL Portland, then the move is understandable – though Pittsburgh’s best prospect, defender Derrick Pouliot, has already played for Johnston in Portland. That’s an interesting dynamic unto itself. It leads to the question, ‘how much more can a player grow from having the same coach at two levels?’
If the Penguins hired Johnston because of X’s & O’s, (his puck management, puck possession style), then the hire appears to me to be a reach. Surely there are other coaches that can adapt or tweak their styles to fit what Pittsburgh was looking for in a coach. To turn the team over to a 57-year-old who has never been the leader of an NHL team is a risky move.
What happens when things don’t go well?
Johnston also admitted he has no experience with advanced hockey statistics.
“I’m excited to talk to Jason Karmanos about the analytics side and what they’ve developed here,” Johnston said. “I’ve always toyed with it, but you’re limited at the junior level. When I came into the NHL, we didn’t really do that. We talked about it a little bit in LA, I presume LA probably has that right now.”
At the media conference Wednesday, the newly-hired assistant coach Rick Tocchet, gave more reassuring, tangible information about the tenants he’s looking for from his roster.
“The players we want here, not so much get the puck but hold onto it,” Tocchet said. “If the guy’s not open, don’t give somebody else your problem, hold onto it. You might have to take a check. That’s composure.”
Johnston himself said how he would lean on Tocchet, how his experience as an NHL player is important.
“For a person like myself, it’s very important to have a player on your staff,” Johnston said. “He’s going to be a great and valuable resource.”
But when Johnston walks into the dressing room, how much respect will he command? He never played in the NHL and as noted, he’s never served as an NHL coach.
From first appearances, Johnston doesn’t seem to be very demonstrative or have a strong personality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though if the team gets off to a bad start it makes a recovery more difficult.
The 57-year-old seems like a respectful person. He said his 80-year-old dad still laces them up and lives near Sidney Crosby’s hometown. Johnston is also a football fan, he’s looking forward to following the Steelers.
Dan Bylsma liked the Pirates more than the Steelers, so there’s another change about the coaching.
If the Penguins don’t get off to a hot start – they play seven of their first 10 games at home – then I could see things going south on Johnston in a hurry.
GM Jim Rutherford has no allegiance to him beyond being one of many interviewees in a public process that saw Pittsburgh miss out on Bill Peters and Willie Desjardins as its first and second apparent coaching choices.
The more I look at Rutherford, the more I could see him serving as the bad guy, the henchman. He doesn’t know anybody in Pittsburgh, he can hire and fire at will. He’s not going to be around the team in the long-term. Rutherford can do the dirty work ownership wants without taking any of the blame.
Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The Penguins forecast has a bigger range to it than in the last six seasons. The roster figures to see more change than it ever did under Bylsma. What will happen with James Neal? Who will replace his regular-season goals? Chris Kunitz is 34, Pascal Dupuis, 35.
Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Jussi Jokinen, these guys, among others, are likely gone. Assistants Todd Reirden and Tony Granato, gone. Washington hired Reirden as an assistant the same day Pittsburgh fired him.
Evgeni Malkin had a wildly inconsistent year. We still don’t know if Sidney Crosby played poorly in the postseason because of a slump or because of shoulder/wrist injuries.
On the bright side, Olli Maatta is another year older and wiser. What a find he was last season. Kris Letang figures to have a longer and better season. Letang might be in a better playing mood with Bylsma gone, though Jacques Martin was retained by ownership and will be re-assigned. Bylsma and Martin put the emphasis on Letang staying behind the puck more often than not.
It’s said that the only constant is change. Shero and Bylsma are gone, Rutherford and Johnston are in.
The clock is ticking …
Excerpts from Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet interviews
Jim Rutherford on Mike Johnston:
The style that I was looking for in a head coach was a guy of making adjustments during a game and that’s probably Mike Johnston’s strongest suit.
Another thing was the puck possession team. As Mike puts it, puck management, puck possession, high-tempo team, but a high tempo team that starts in your own end. It’s not that he just overlooking the defensive part of the game.
Mike Johnston on Rick Tocchet:
For a person like myself, it’s very important to have a player on your staff, but it’s more important to have a player as a coach (with experience).
We’ll start to piece our staff together over the next several days.
I’m excited to get back in the fire, had some great conversations with Mike Johnston. He thinks outside the box and that’s what I like. It’s the 15 percent of teams that do things differently. We’re going to get some motivated players here to get that fire back and get the Cup again.
Being outside, I know a lot of people think they have a lot of problems. The way Mike’s going to coach this team is high tempo. They welcome the pressure. You’re going to get highly motivated guys coming back.
My basic framework is puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace. You want your players to have options in every part: breakout, getting out of our zone to offensive zone entries.
Our defensive habits, details to defensive habits will be engrained for sure. I’m more inclined to really play a pace game. You own the puck, you play defensively a lot less. I like the core of players here to play that style of game. That’s the type of team I want to coach.
On coming from Junior hockey:
I came in and we were given the NHL players for the ‘98 Olympics. We then had some great teams in Vancouver then moved into LA. Recognizing how NHL players are, demands of the schedule, that’s what I’ve learned as an assistant.
Build a template, it is a process. Development camp, rookie camp then training camp.
On Penguins being soft:
The core is exactly where I want it. As far as pieces, Jim and his staff will address it going forward. As Rick had mentioned, a lot of teams in the league would like to have our core group.
Bringing in our plan and template, we’re going to sell the team on this is how we want to play. They want to have the right template and now how they fit into the equation. We’ll be very clear what’s expected of them.
On coaching under Marc Crawford and others in Alberta:
I had some phenomenal mentors. You take bits and pieces from all of them and then you have your own personality and style.
On the top quartile not being good enough for the Penguins:
The bottom line expectation for me, from training camp to the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs. The score is relevant, but not as relevant as the habits we will have to make us successful in the playoffs. Right from Day 1 in training camp, as a coaching staff, we want to have those habits so you can say that team is becoming a playoff-ready team. Jim will take a look at the personnel. We’re not going to compromise to have that playoff-ready team.
We will add one more coach to the group.
On coaching in the NHL despite not playing in NHL:
I’m a firm believer a coaching staff has to have balance, that’s why we have Rick – he’s going to be a valuable addition.
On puck possession:
A lot of its driven through the center of the ice, escaping the zone quick and getting it going in transition. The defense is important in escaping the zone, getting the right type of attack going, but our centers are critical. To move the puck through the middle of the ice and distribute it is critical. This group of centers is tailor-made for that type of set-up. Puck possession teams manage the puck well.
For example, there are five options for the winger to get the puck out of his own zone, which one will he take depends on the team we’re playing.
On puck possession (from shorter Johnston audio clip):
I like to come out as a pack because there are more options for the puck carrier. Once you stretch the zone really quick, the puck carrier is isolated and often he has to chip the puck in and there’s no support. I like the first play to be inside to the middle and then distribute it wide as you enter the zone.
On advanced statistics:
You’re trying to evaluate your team on more than the score. That’s what analytics does. Gives you an objective measurement more than a subjective one.
I’m excited to talk to Jason Karmanos about the analytics side and what they’ve developed here. I’ve always toyed with it, but you’re limited at the junior level. When I came into the NHL, we didn’t really do that. We talked about it a little bit in LA, I presume LA probably has that right now.
Johnston, Tocchet media scrums
Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet:
Mike Johnston Media Scrum:
Rick Tocchet Media Scrum:
(Courtesy, Pittsburgh Penguins)
The hiring of Mike Johnston marks the first time the Pens haven’t taken a Portland Winterhawk in the first round since they picked Andrew Ference in the eighth round of the 1997 draft.
There’s something in the Portland water Pittsburgh likes.
Links ‘n At
Kovacevic: Penguins, Johnston could grow together, from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
New Penguins coach Johnston understands pressures of NHL job, from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Penguins reach far to fill head coaching position job, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Gene Collier: Mike Johnston’s ideas well-suited to his task, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Penguins new coach Mike Johnston’s to-do list is a long one, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Mike Johnston will embrace skill and Penguins should thrive, Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz reports.