The Pittsburgh Penguins introduced Mike Johnston as their new head coach on Wednesday afternoon. He had a lot to say about his new challenge here in Pittsburgh. Here’s what you need to know about the Penguins’ bench boss and his vision for the team moving forward.
1. HIS QUALIFICATIONS
The two main factors Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was looking for in his new head coach was the ability to adjust to the style of players here in Pittsburgh, and the ability to make the proper adjustments during games and throughout the regular season and playoffs. And Rutherford feels the latter is Johnston’s biggest strength.
Johnston has worked extensively with Team Canada, coaching at the Olympics, World Championships and World Junior Championships. Those tournaments require a lot of adjusting on the fly, and Rutherford cited Johnston’s experience in those situations as an example of his ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
“The style of play and some of the things I was looking for in a head coach was a guy that was capable of making adjustments during games, and that’s probably his strongest suit,” Rutherford said. “He’s a guy who’s coached teams in tournaments and in order to be successful in those tournaments, you always have to make adjustments.”
Rutherford also wanted his new coach to be able to play a puck-possession style because of the talent this team has, and that’s exactly the way Johnston’s Portland Winterhawks teams played.
"I feel very strongly that we got the right coach," Rutherford said.2. HIS EXPERIENCE
People may look at Johnston’s coaching resume and see that he was most recently GM/head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, a junior team in the Western Hockey League. But just because that’s the last thing on his resume doesn’t mean it’s the only thing.
In addition to his tenure with Hockey Canada, Johnston has eight years of experience in the National Hockey League. He was assistant/associate coach of the Vancouver Canucks from 1999-2006 and was associate coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 2006-08.
Johnston worked with many high-profile players during his time in the NHL and with Team Canada, including Hall of Famers like Wayne Gretzky, Rob Blake, Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla, and many current stars like Ryan Getzlaf, Martin St. Louis, Shea Weber, Jonathan Toews and the Penguins’ own Chris Kunitz.
And while Johnston knows how to deal with established guys like that, he also knows how to develop up-and-coming prospects as well. That comes from his time in Portland, where he worked with talented young players trying to make it in the NHL – including Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot. That experience will be invaluable when it comes to integrating those kinds of players onto the roster and making sure they’re able to contribute at this level.
Johnston’s experiences in the NHL and with Hockey Canada, in addition to his time with Portland, are why he’s ready to be a head coach in the NHL for a team that has superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.3. HIS BIGGEST STRENGTH
Johnston said he feels his biggest strength as a coach is building a program, building a template and building an identity that’s clearly understood by the staff and the players, ensuring that everyone is in sync.
“That’s important, I think, in any line of work, that the organization has an identity that you can grab onto,” Johnston explained. “From an identity, there’s core things you’re going to be able to see and say that’s how the Pittsburgh Penguins play. That’s what I’ve been able to build in the past.”
Johnston said he will start going through the process of building that template immediately, as he starts to meet players and talk about how they are going to play and what they are going to do. That will continue into prospect development camp, the rookie tournament and then into training camp. 4. HIS SYSTEM
Johnston wants this team to have the same identity that his team in Portland did. That means playing a system built on puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace. And he said Pittsburgh’s core group is exactly where he wants it in terms of playing that style.
“I’m more inclined, with the teams I’ve coached over the years, to really play a pace game,” Johnston said. “I want to play a pace game, I want to play a puck possession game. You own the puck, you play defensively a lot less. Certainly I like the core of players here, both the defense and the forwards, to be able to play that style of game. I think Pittsburgh was built on the makeup of that style, and certainly I’m excited about having that type of team. That’s the type of team I want to coach.”
Possession and management go hand-in-hand in Johnston’s system. He wants his players to make the right decisions when they have the puck, and said making sure they have a lot of options to choose from will help them do that.
“In every part of the game, from the breakout getting out of our zone to offensive zone entries, we want to give our players as many options as possible,” he said. “We want them to use those options, we want to pick the right options and we want to talk to them about that.”
The Penguins are known for being a skilled, talented team that can score at will and in bunches. Johnston wants to use those strengths to their advantage, but not in an irresponsible way. He was able to find the balance between offense and defense in Portland, as the Winterhawks led the league with 338 goals for while ranking fifth (tied) in goals against with 207, and plans to do that here as well.
“A lot of people looked at us in Portland and said ‘Boy, they can score, they’re skilled, they can make plays,’” Johnston said. “But at the same time, our defensive habits and the details to our defensive habits will be engrained for sure.”5. HIS BRAND OF PUCK POSSESSION
Johnston feels that the Penguins are “tailor-made” for his brand of puck possession, and that’s because it’s all built around the center – both the literal center of the ice and the centers on the team. And Pittsburgh obviously has two of the world’s best down the middle in Crosby and Malkin.
“Our defense are very important in escaping our zone and eventually getting the right kind of attack, but our centers are critical to move the puck up the center of the ice and distributing it as you enter the offensive zone,” Johnston said. “That’s very important. That’s why you take a look at the centers on this team and say that they are tailor-made for that type of set up.”
But Johnston and Rutherford both reiterated that everything starts from deep in the defensive zone. They have to take care of their own end first before they can attack.
“Getting it out of our zone quick, clean and successful and managing the puck (is key),” Johnston said. “Puck possession teams manage the puck well, so we will talk a lot about choices with the puck and puck decisions.
“For example, our winger will have five options coming out of our zone. Which one he will take will depend on the team we are playing. We will talk about that as a team before the game and work on that during practice so they know the options like a quarterback in football — you drop back and you’ve got four plays in our game because one guy has the puck and those are your primary, secondary, and third options. That’s what you look for.”
To give his players those options, Johnston prefers that they come out of their own zone as a pack instead of using long, risky stretch passes.
"I like to come out as a pack. I like to come out together," he said. "Just because I still think there’s more options as a puck carrier. Once you stretch the zone really quick, then the puck carrier is isolated. Often he has to chip the puck in, dump it in, and there’s no support. So I would like the first play to be inside, to the middle. I’d like to bring the puck up the middle and then distribute it wide as you enter the zone. That's my preference."6. WORKING WITH THE STARS
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t just any two players. They’re two of the best in the world. And Johnston’s approach to working with those high-profile players and building trust and a relationship with them goes back to what he said about building a template and identity that’s clearly understood by the players and staff.
Presenting them with an organized, well thought out plan that outlines every detail about how this team is going to get back to the Stanley Cup is going to be key.
“The important thing for all players is they want to know how we can be successful,” Johnston said. “And this group wants to win. They (have). They won the Stanley Cup and they want to win again. So bringing in our plan and our template, we're going to sell the team on this is how we're going to play and this is how we're going to be successful.
“And whether you're ‘Sid’ or you're Malkin, I think any player in that dressing room is going to want to have the right template to make us successful. And in saying that, they'll also want to know how are they going to fit into the equation. What's expected of them? And we'll be very clear with every player what's expected of them. And once they understand their role, how they're going to fit into the big picture, I don't think it really matters if you're a 22-minute guy or a 16- or a 10-minute guy, you want to be part of it and you know where you fit in and now you have to execute.”7. HIS ASSISTANT COACHES
The Penguins announced that former Penguin Rick Tocchet, who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992, had been hired as an assistant coach. Tony Granato and Todd Reirden will not return, while Jacques Martin will remain with the club in a yet-to-be-determined capacity. Goaltending coach Mike Bales and video coordinator Andy Saucier will remain in their current roles.
Johnston said that as of right now, the plan is to add one more assistant to his staff. However, he still has to meet with the current members before he moves forward with that search.
The one person he has spoken with is Tocchet, who has previous NHL coaching experience with Colorado, Phoenix and Tampa Bay in addition to his time as a player in the league. And Johnston is thrilled to have someone like him on the staff.
“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 that has coached,” Johnston said. “I told that to Jim when we first started to discuss candidates for coaching positions. One of my main things was to have a former player, but I also wanted a player that has had some coaching experience and Rick’s had a lot of it. He’s been an assistant coach, he’s been a head coach in the NHL, he’s been in this market. He’s going to be a great and valuable resource to myself. I’ll sit down with Rick over the next few days and we’ll talk about our staff and we’ll start to piece the remainder of our staff together from there.”8. THE BOTTOM LINE
Last season, a few Penguins players talked about how the weight of expectations on them to win a Stanley Cup could be crushing at times. Johnston is going to have a challenge ahead of him in terms of getting his team to embrace the pressure instead of cracking under it, while at the same time making sure they do live up to what's expected of them. And that's to win the Stanley Cup.
Johnston's plan is to make sure his guys maintain the right focus throughout the year so that they’re prepared for the postseason when it arrives.
“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 explained. “So the score is relevant, but it's not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have that are going to make us successful in the playoffs. Right from Day 1 of training camp, as a coaching staff we want to set the table to have those habits. You could say that team is becoming a playoff-ready team. That's what we want from a coaching perspective.
“From Jim's (Rutherford) perspective, he'll certainly talk to personnel and how we're going to function at that level. But from my view, we want to start from Day 1. As I've said so often before, as a coach you never want to look back at the playoffs and say ‘Gee, I wish I didn't do this, I wish I hadn't done that, I wish I had been firmer in this area because that cost us.’ And I don't want to be sitting in that position come playoff time, so that's our goal, that's what we're going to do, and that's how we're going to operate from the beginning of the season. We're going to put those building blocks in place, and we're not going to compromise in areas in order to have that playoff-ready team.”