The Pittsburgh Penguins’ first choice for head coach was Willie Desjardins. Alas, he said no, and went on to sign with the Vancouver Canucks. Which sucked for Mike Johnston, head coach of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, who figured he was a top candidate for the Canucks job.
Perhaps Johnston was one of those coaches that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t realize was available until after he whiffed on Desjardins. Whatever the case, TSN reported on Wednesday that Johnston is the next head coach for Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. The press conference is at noon. Rick Tocchet, who last coached with the Tampa Bay Lightning, will be his assistant.
Trevor Linden, who interviewed Johnston for the Canucks gig, said, “he was impressive. He’s done an amazing job down in Portland resurrecting that franchise. He’s a bright hockey mind. He’s a smart guy.
Johnston hasn’t been an NHL head coach, but has been the coach and GM of the Winterhawks for the last five years. He has been an associate coach for the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks, as well as the head coach of the Canadian world junior team in 2009. He was also an assistant coach for Team Canada in Nagano.
He coached top Penguins prospect defenseman Derrick Pouliot in the WHL.
He’s also a coach with some infamy: He was suspended for nearly all of 2012-13 for violating player benefit regulations. Fans began calling his team the “Cheaterhawks.” It was pretty awkward, but Johnston accepted the punishment.
Maybe that character building moment fulfilled Rutherford’s desires for a coach: “It has to be a guy that has good character, good leadership qualities, a guy that can handle the players we have, and a guy that can make adjustments during a game or a series. That's very, very important,” Rutherford said. “I still have a guy in my group of names that's capable of doing that.”
Two words about Johnston: “Up” and “Tempo.” His teams play an attacking style of hockey that clearly is the direction Sidney Crosby, er, the Penguins want to go.
It's a good hire, all things considered, and a better one than a stop-gap like Marc Crawford. But the challenges to refine the Penguins' indentity and meet the expectations of ownership are rather great.
One interesting factor: Although he's a junior hockey coach, Johnston is 57 years old. Desjardins was 57. Rutherford also sought out Doug MacLean, who is older than 57.
Detect a trend? Detect the desire for the Penguins to hire both a coach and a father figure who, perhaps, can offer sage advice to players that might need it at certain emotionally charged moments? Wonder why ...