One of the most startling events of the post-season was the Penguins' decision to name Mike Johnston as head coach.
General Manager Jim Rutherford's choice bypassed such familiar names as Ron Wilson, Mike Keenan, Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford.
Our own Adrian Szkolar has followed Johnston's career more meticulously than most. Adrian files the following, fascinating report.
Back in late December, I asked Mike Johnston, then coach of Portland Winterhawks, on his thoughts about getting back into the professional ranks. Probably because of the incredible success he was enjoying at the Junior level, he didn’t seem that enthused over the idea of moving to the American Hockey League.
The NHL was a different story.
“If it was a different coaching job, certainly at the NHL level, I'd entertain that,” he told me.
Six months later, he got what he wanted. And Pittsburgh fans should be excited for what is coming.
The Winterhawks, thanks mainly to Johnston’s leadership, have emerged as the premier organization in the Western Hockey League. Under Johnston, the team has finished first in its division in three of the last four years, and has made it to the WHL finals in each of those seasons.
While identifying and recruiting high-end talent has played a big role in Portland’s success, so has the way that Johnston has his boys play. Under Mike, the Winterhawks were characterized by an aggressive, up-tempo game that emphasized puck possession. The Hawks tried to carry the puck in past the blue-line whenever possible, and only dumped it when the opposition’s defense forced one.
“Let’s face it, we play this game to battle for and enjoy possession of the puck,” Johnston wrote in Hockey Plays and Strategies, a coaching book he co-authored with Ryan Walter. “Puck possession needs to be a key underlying philosophy, not only for playing hockey at a high level but also for its enjoyment.”
This coincides with winning NHL hockey these days. The top five teams this past season in 5-on-5 Corsi -- a statistic used as a proxy for puck possession -- were Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New Jersey and San Jose. The first three have all won Stanley Cups in recent years, while San Jose has also been near the top of the Western Conference the past few seasons. The sixth-place team, the Rangers, just made an impressive run to the Finals.
Even old-school Kings coach Darryl Sutter recognizes the importance of emphasizing puck possession.
“The game’s changed. They think there’s defending in today’s game. Nah, it’s how much you have the puck,” he told the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson during his team’s playoff run. “Teams that play around in their own zone, they’re defending but they’re generally getting scored on or taking face-offs and they need a goalie to stand on his head if that’s the way they play.”
Pittsburgh was middle-of-the-pack this year in terms of puck possession, but Johnston’s presence will be a plus in that critical department. While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both put up sterling Corsi numbers, the team struggled mightily when neither of them was on the ice. While Johnston will probably need better talent to work with in his bottom-six, his ideas, such as creating options for his forwards on zone entries and less emphasis on high-risk stretch passes, should be a fresh breath of air.
“I like the core of players here, both the defense and the forwards, to be able to play that style,” Johnston said in his introductory press conference. “I think Pittsburgh was built on the make-up of that style.”
While Johnston is making the jump from coaching teenagers to coaching the best in the world, the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. The latest Jack Adams winner as coach of the year, Patrick Roy, is the most recent example. And unlike Roy, Johnston already has extensive NHL experience from his days as an assistant under Marc Crawford in Vancouver.
That stint will help. But most important, he’ll bring a new tactical identity to Pittsburgh; one that is pleasing to the eye.
Also, one that Crosby and company will enjoy playing.
But most importantly, one that wins.