PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins insisted during their extensive front office overhaul that the on-ice product doesn’t need to change much for the franchise to return to the NHL’s elite.
Small tweaks, not big ones, are required.
Mike Johnston’s job is to figure out which ones to make and – perhaps more importantly – how to make them work.
The Penguins hired the well-traveled Johnston to replace Dan Bylsma Wednesday, charging the hockey lifer with creating the right system for stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to thrive in both the regular season and beyond.
Considering the talent at his disposal, the 57-year-old Johnston likes his chances. After spending the last six years with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League preaching an uptempo attack, Johnston welcomes the opportunity to work with one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL.
“The core group is exactly where I want it,” Johnston said.
Good, because they’re not going anywhere.
Instead, it’s everything around Malkin and Crosby – who earned his second Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player Tuesday – that is changing.
Johnston’s hiring ends a tumultuous six weeks in which the Penguins were bounced from the Eastern Conference semifinals by the New York Rangers after blowing a 3-1 lead, fired Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero, and brought in longtime Carolina Hurricanes executive Jim Rutherford to clean up the mess.
Rutherford settled on Johnston after a lengthy interview process that included an ill-fated run at Willie Desjardins, who opted to take the vacant job in Vancouver.
Regardless of the path taken, Rutherford is confident he ended up at the right destination.
“I feel very strongly that we’ve got the right coach,” Rutherford said.
One whose success will depend on his ability to take Pittsburgh on extended playoff runs. Bylsma won more games than any coach in club history but was fired June 6 after going just 4-5 in postseason series since leading the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup title.
Johnston understands the onus to win on a given night, but stressed the focus will be on preparing Pittsburgh for the challenges of hockey in May and June, not October or November.
“The bottom-line expectation for me is that, from training camp through the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs,” Johnston said. “The score is relevant but it’s not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have to make us successful in the playoffs.”
Pittsburgh is Johnston’s first NHL head coaching job, though he spent two previous stints as an assistant with Vancouver and the Los Angeles Kings. He said he has a bit to learn about the challenges of an 82-game NHL season, which is one of the reasons the Penguins also brought in Rick Tocchet to serve as Johnston’s top assistant.
Tocchet played 18 years in the NHL, including two seasons in Pittsburgh, where the four-time All-Star helped the Penguins win their second Stanley Cup championship in 1992. The 50-year-old Tocchet also spent more than a season as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008-10. While Tocchet said that his old team has underachieved in recent springs, he doesn’t see that as a stumbling block.
“There are teams that wish they had (Pittsburgh’s) problems,” Tocchet said. “The way Mike is going to coach this team, the way these guys play is high tempo. It’s something guys are going to enjoy.”
Tocchet replaces Todd Reirden and Tony Granato, holdovers from Bylsma’s staff who were let go on Wednesday. The Penguins retained goaltending coach Mike Bales and video coordinator Andy Saucier. Assistant coach Jacques Martin will also remain with the team in an undetermined capacity.
Johnston is hardly a novice when it comes to dealing with pressure or highly skilled players. He was a part of the coaching staff that led Canada to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first Games in which NHL players were allowed to compete. It led to nearly a decade as an assistant with Vancouver (1999-2006) and the Kings (2006-08) before he landed in Portland, where he spent six years helping young players navigate the choppy waters of professional life.
The seas will be only more tumultuous in one of the NHL’s most high-profile jobs. Johnston is OK with the pressure. With the 26-year-old Crosby and the 27-year-old Malkin in the midst of their primes, there are worst places to start.
“This group wants to win,” he said. “They’ve won the Stanley Cup, and I believe they want to do it again.”