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Is Mike Johnston ready to handle Penguins pressure?

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy
Penguins hire Mike Johnston as coach
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Mike Johnston answers questions at a news conference after the Pittsburgh Penguins introduced him as the NHL hockey team's new coach on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It’s become clear, in the aftermath, that Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford loathed the fact that Dan Bylsma – the coach his owners fired upon his hiring – lacked the ability to adjust during adverse times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs 

We know this because he’s said it, and we know this because it’s the leading attribute he trumpeted about new coach Mike Johnston, who was introduced by the Penguins on Wednesday after five years with junior hockey’s WHL Portland Winterhawks.

“That’s probably his strongest suit,” said Rutherford, on Johnston making adjustments. “He’s coached teams in tournaments, and to be successful in those tournaments you have to be able to make adjustments.”

There’s a lot to like about Johnston, who is without question one of the most respected coaches in the junior ranks and one of those ‘just a matter of time’ NHL candidates. The style of play he promotes would seem palatable to both Sidney Crosby and the guy who signs both of their checks with the Penguins.

“Puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace,” was his mantra on Wednesday, at his introductory press conference. “I’m more inclined, with the teams I’ve coached through the years, is to play a pace game.”

That’s all well and good. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will, no doubt, enjoy playing that style. But when the Penguins hire someone to replace Bylsma, there are two immediate questions to be answered: Does he have the stuff to manage a roster anchored by two megastars, and does he have the stuff to get the Penguins over the hump and back into the Stanley Cup Final?

On the first question, Johnston had an answer: Ever since he was an assistant coach at the 1998 Nagano Games, he’s had experience coaching NHL stars as an assistant coach during stints with the Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings. He cited Marc Crawford and Andy Murray amongst his teachers. Despite five years in the junior game, he feels he has the stuff to manage egos on the senior circuit.

The trick, he said, is to communicate a team identity and their roles in it.

“Whether you’re Sid or Malkin, any player in that dressing room is going to have the right template to be successful,” he said. “Once they understand their role and how they fit into the picture, it doesn’t matter if you’re a 22 minute guy or a 16 minute guy.”

(Don’t underestimate the role of Rick Tocchet here as the intermediary between Johnston and his stars.)

On the second question, the answer begins with those 16-minute-a-nighters. Johnston loves the core of this Penguins team, but believes the rest of the roster needs some additions and subtractions. “The core group is exactly where I want it. As far as pieces to go with that group, we’re going to have a lot of discussions about that,” he said 

(This concept might have Dan Bylsma drop-kicking his mobile device in the nearest body of water after listening to the press conference, as the lack of a strong supporting cast from his GM was the top reason why the team faltered after winning the Cup.)

What Johnston wants: Upgrades around the roster, better depth and then getting everyone on the same page about what they need to do to win in the postseason.

“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,” he said, which should be music to Sidney Crosby’s ears after he complained about not doing enough in the regular season to set up for the postseason.

Perhaps the best thing Johnston said at his presser was about team identity, which was another Crosby concern. Who are the Penguins? How do they play? Johnston said knowing the answers is essential to his teams’ success 

“My strengths have been building a program. Building an identity that’s understood by the players and the staff. That’s important in any line of work: That there’s an identity that you can grab onto,” he said.

“There are core things that you’re going to see and be able to say ‘that’s how the Pittsburgh Penguins play.’”

He might not have been the top choice for the job, but Mike Johnston said enough of the right things to make you believe he could be. And that’s probably enough for GM Jim Rutherford and his bosses for now. 

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