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Penguins name Mike Johnston new coach

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins ended nearly three weeks without a coach by appointing former Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston to the position Wednesday.

Johnston, whose NHL experience comes from his time as assistant/associate coach of the Vancouver Canucks from 1999-2006 and associate coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 2006-08, had been coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League's Winterhawks for the past six seasons.

Johnston replaces Dan Bylsma, who was fired June 6.

"As a career coach, you aspire to get to these positions," Johnston said. "And certainly I've been in the National Hockey League before as an associate coach, but to coach at this level is something I've aspired to do. It's been my goal, it's been my dream and I'm really thrilled to be standing here today.

"When I first started coaching, I coached in a small college in Alberta and four years into my job, I sent a letter to several NHL general managers and I said, 'I've been coaching for four years now … and I'm ready to coach in the NHL.' Just keep it in mind."

Johnston did not pinpoint a reason why it took several years for him to be offered an NHL job, but said it could be due to his lack of NHL experience as a player. He was an assistant coach for Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics, at the IIHF World Championship on six occasions and the World Junior Championship twice.

He said his experience with Canada and as an assistant in the NHL will allow him to communicate with key players, such as Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"The '98 Olympics, for the first time we had NHL players," Johnston said. "So we were building for the '98 Olympics with the national team and we were given the NHL players. … That was my first experience coaching high-level NHL players. Subsequent to that, I went right into Vancouver … became an assistant and associate coach and we had some great teams in Vancouver.

"I had a lot to do with handling some of those players."

Johnston said his primary goal is to put the Penguins in a position to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"The bottom-line expectation for me is that from training camp and the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs," he said. "So the score is relevant, but it's not as relevant as the habits that we're going to have that will make us successful in the playoffs."

Puck possession was stressed during Johnston's introductory press conference at Consol Energy Center. He said the way the Penguins are built, with Crosby and Malkin centering the top two lines, is "tailor made" for his system.

"My basic framework of the system is puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace," Johnson said. "You want your players to have options in a game, so in every part of the game, from breakout getting out of our zone to offensive zone entries, we want to give our players as many options as possible. We want them to use those options and we want to pick the right options.

"Our defensive habits and the details for our defensive habits will be ingrained, for sure. But I'm more inclined in teams I've coached over the years, to really play a pace game. You hold the puck, you play defensively a lot less."

Johnston named his ability to build an identity as one of his strengths and will aim to establish that in Pittsburgh.

"That's important in any line of work, that the organization has an identity," Johnston said. "There are core things that you will be able to see and you're going to say, 'This is how the Pittsburgh Penguins play.' And that's what I've been able to build in the past.

"Once you build that template, then you maneuver pieces around within the template, but it is a process."

During his time establishing that template with the Winterhawks, Johnston led Portland to its largest turnaround in team history when it improved by 48 points in his first full season in 2009-10. Portland reached the WHL final in each of the past four years and lost to Halifax in the 2013 Memorial Cup Final.

Portland's 2013-14 roster included 10 players drafted by NHL teams, including Penguins 2012 first-round pick Derrick Pouliot. Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the 2012-13 season on Nov. 28, 2012, due to a player benefits violation committed by the Winterhawks.

"I was a rookie general manager in the Western Hockey League and on the player benefits side, we made an error in the way we did things," Johnston said. "Subsequently, it had nothing to do with coaching, but since I held a general manager/coach position, that impacted the coaching side."

Former Penguins forward and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Rick Tocchet was named as an assistant coach, which Johnston said will create a balanced staff with Tocchet bringing his experience as a former NHL player to the position.

"I'm excited to get back in the fire," Tocchet said. "I got the opportunity from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, I'm very pleased. … I kind of cheated a little bit, I read a lot about [Johnston]. His assistant coach Travis Green is a good buddy of mine. He talked for years and years about his systems that Mike and Travis deployed.

"[Johnston] thinks outside of the box and that's what I like."

Two of Bylsma's assistants, Tony Granato and Todd Reirden, have been dismissed. Jacques Martin will remain in a yet-to-be-determined position, and goaltending coach Mike Bales and video coordinator Andy Saucier will retain their current roles.

Johnston said he will add another assistant to his staff.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he is pleased with how Pittsburgh's coaching search concluded.

"The style of play and some of the things I was looking for in a coach, was a guy who was capable of making adjustments during a game," Rutherford said. "That's probably [Johnston's] strongest suit."

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