Mike Johnston: Better Than Advertised

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a team riddled with talent that failed to live up to expectations since winning the 2008-09 Stanley Cup. Despite having a new man at the helm, that narrative remained the same during the 2014-15 season. The new man in charge is a soft spoken, mild mannered man from Vancouver Canada named Mike Johnston. Before last season began, there were many who doubted Johnston’s ability to work with the Penguins’ superstar players and after just one season he proved them wrong. Johnston was able to work very effectively with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, despite having no experience as an NHL or even an AHL coach prior to working with the Penguins.

The Legacy of Dan Bylsma

If we’re going to be discussing Johnston, it’s only fair to discuss the man he replaced, Dan Bylsma. It was recently announced that Bylsma has found a new gig as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. Working with the Sabres will be Bylsma’s biggest challenge to date. Sure, his winning record in Pittsburgh was phenomenal, but that’s only part of the story. He took over the Penguins with Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury and Jordan Staal already on the team and, for the most part, developed hockey players. There is only so much even a great head coach can do from behind the bench, at some point the players have to go out and execute.

Bylsma was the winningest head coach in Penguins’ history, but it was not enough. He routinely was unable to push his team to the Stanley Cup despite having one of the best rosters in the NHL. After the 2013-14 season, the Penguins ownership were not satisfied and they fired both Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero. But both men really were a victim of circumstance and there are few who would argue that. For the most part, the work they did was positive and, at the very least, provided spectacular entertainment to the city of Pittsburgh. However, they were working for the Penguins and the expectation every year is to compete for the Stanley Cup. It isn’t just called the City of Champions for no reason.

Mike Johnston’s First Year

The expectation in Pittsburgh is to compete for the Stanley Cup every year, and in that respect, Johnston’s first year was a failure, but the best is yet to come. After just one season, some of the online community was actually hoping that Johnston would lose his job. But this would only have pushed the Penguins further from the Cup.  Yes, the expectation in Pittsburgh is to win the Cup every year, but those who knew the team well, were aware it was a long shot even before the season started.

When the 2014-15 season started, the Penguins were on fire, looked to be a favorite to compete and many quickly praised Johnston’s work. However, Johnston’s up-tempo puck-possession system was a rather simple one. In theory, it’s a great concept. The Penguins have some of the best players in the world, so keep the system simple and let them use their talent creatively. But as last season showed us, talent is not enough to win throughout an 82 game system. As the season progressed, the powerplay cooled off and the team began a slow decline. The first time the Penguins played a team they won 66% of games, the second time their win percentage declined to 52% and the third time it was down to 39%. Those same people who were praising Mike Johnston just a few months ago had turned on him, but that is what most fans of professional sports teams do. At the first hint of trouble, they blame the people in charge of the organization and in Pittsburgh’s case it’s Johnston and general manager Jim Rutherford.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Johnston (File Photo)
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Johnston (File Photo)

As we all know, the Pens management made a significant mistake with their salary cap and as they endured injuries, the team was decimated. They had to play six games with only five defenders and it took them until the very last game of the season to secure a playoff berth. By the end of the season the fanbase had turned on both Rutherford and Johnston.

We’re in the middle of the offseason and in a few months, hockey will be returning to the Consol Energy Center, but what should we expect? It’s the Pittsburgh Penguins, so the expectations will be to win a Stanley Cup, especially considering the shiny new toy (Phil Kessel) that Johnston has to play with. With all of the aggressive trades the Penguins have continued to make, they’re all in to win another Cup during the next five years and I think that Johnston is the man that is capable of making that happen.

He was a rookie head coach during the 2014-15 season and this is the reason why his system was so simple. I had the pleasure of running into Johnston on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver and after talking to him for a while, he is exactly what you think he is. Mike Johnston is driven, passionate and genuinely nice person. The soft spoken and mild mannered man you see during games or press conferences is exactly who he is away from the rink. Johnston’s goal is to bring another Cup to Pittsburgh and I believe he can do it.

There’s always going to be sky-high expectations when talking about the Penguins, but this could be the season in which they’re met. Over the offseason Johnston has spent countless hours working on his system because he knows it was a weakness during last season and this is precisely why Johnston can deliver a Cup victory. But why is this small thing an indicator that he can push the Penguins to the Stanley Cup once again?

Consider the man he replaced and his reputation. Bylsma’s biggest criticism is that he did not adjust his system and game plan. His mentality was to dominate play and force other teams to adjust to them, and as we’ve seen, that did not always work. Johnston’s a smart man and the biggest reason to be encouraged about the 2015-16 season is because he adjusts very well. He pushed the team into the playoffs with just five defenders, he changed his game plan to suit every opponent and he’s ready for another chance.