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Penguins getting first look at new coach Johnston

by Wes Crosby
PITTSBURGH -- Change is inevitable.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi echoed those words inside their Consol Energy Center locker room Thursday. And it was a prevalent theme one day before the Penguins take the ice for their first practice of training camp.

The Mike Johnston era has begun in Pittsburgh. Most players don't seem to know what to expect from their new coach yet.

But each player recognized that change was warranted after the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Penguins couldn't hold a 3-1 lead against the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference Second Round series. In the aftermath, general manager Ray Shero was fired and replaced by Jim Rutherford. Rutherford fired coach Dan Bylsma and hired Johnston on June 25.

"It's going to take a bit to learn a new system and to understand the expectations of our coaching staff," forward Chris Kunitz said. "But I think we're all eager and excited to get into that process. … The one thing I keep hearing is the puck possession, kind of the analytics of the game and being able to hold onto the puck instead of giving it away. If you keep the puck your shots go up, and I think we have a team that can skate up and down the ice.

"We're going to be able to hopefully play into that system."

Along with the changes to the coaching and managerial staffs, Pittsburgh has overhauled its lineup with notable players including forwards James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik playing elsewhere. The biggest additions were defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Kunitz said it is as important to develop a rapport with the new players as it is to establish one with Johnston.

"I think the tough part is the change in the locker room too," Kunitz said. "You build a lot of good friendships. You're with guys who aren't here anymore, your family was adapted to being with each other when you guys are gone, so it's tough for the family too. But we're excited.

"No season is ever the same. You always have different personnel and different players here. That's something we have to pick up quick, is trying to get that chemistry and that rhythm together."

The most noticeable change in Pittsburgh remains behind the bench. The Penguins last named a new coach midway through the 2008-09 season, when Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien on the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

Johnston spent his offseason meeting as many players as he could, including a lunch with Sidney Crosby and a visit with Evgeni Malkin in Russia. He also met with defenseman Paul Martin for about an hour.

"It was more of an informal conversation, nothing too serious," Martin said. "So I think a lot of us are anxious to see what we're going to be doing this year with a lot of new faces and especially new coaches. I actually don't know a lot [about Johnston's system]. We didn't talk a lot about it, it was more of a, 'How’s life?' thing, so I think we're anxious or we'll have to figure out fast what we're doing."

Forward Brandon Sutter said he thinks a learning curve might be noticeable through the first few practices and preseason games but hopes it doesn't last into the start of the regular season.

"I think just with the changes comes new systems and new language, new terminology, things like that," he said. "There will be a little bit of an adjustment period there, but I think guys are anxious to get going on it. Training camp this year will probably be a little bit different that it's been in the past. It'll probably be a little more alert and a little more walkthrough stuff … hopefully after a few preseason games we'll kind of feel a little more acquainted.

"But so far everyone's been great."

Johnston said he understands the players' trepidation and shares it.

"I'm excited," Johnston said. "As a coach, whether you're a coach or a player, it's an exciting time. Everyone's got a lot of energy. It's an upbeat, energetic time. You're starting to build for the season, it's a new group. There's probably going to be seven or eight new players in this locker room to start the year, so those guys are anxious and chomping at the bit to get some ice time.

"And then you have the veteran players coming back with a new coaching staff and new players, wondering what's going to happen … but I'm looking forward to the first ice session [Friday]."

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