Penguins Fire Mike Johnston, Mike Sullivan Takes Over

The Pittsburgh Penguins have fired coach Mike Johnston, the team announced on Saturday.

Johnston’s assistant coach Gary Agnew was also relieved of his duties by Pens GM Jim Rutherford.

The team has given the head coach job to Mike Sullivan, head coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Sullivan was in his first year with the team. The AHL Penguins currently have an 18-5 record and sit atop the Atlantic Division.

Sullivan was head coach of the Boston Bruins from 2003-06 and has spent eight seasons as a NHL assistant coach, working with the Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. He was also a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2014-15 season.

Sullivan will have his first game as the Pens bench boss on Monday at home against the Washington Capitals. He will retain Rick Tocchet and Jacques Martin as assistant coaches. Tocchet joined the team as an assistant coach last season and Martin is fresh to the organization this season in the role of special assistant to the coach.

Martin will transition from that special assistant role that saw him spending games in the press box, to the bench as an assistant coach.

Talking about the move in the team’s announcement, Rutherford said, “I felt it was time for a coaching change because our team has underachieved. Our expectations are much higher with this group of players.”

Off to a 15-10-3 start, the Penguins currently sit outside a playoff spot, though they are tied with the Boston Bruins for 33 points and the Bruins hold the last wild card spot in the East on tie-breaker.

Despite the presence of Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron, the team is averaging just 2.36 goals per game, 27th in the league. Their power play is also ranked 27th in the league with a 15.6% success rate.

Johnston coached a conservative, defense-first style, which had theoretical merits. The team has a weak blue line and if all players make up for that lack of talent, the goals could still come due to a group of elite level forwards up front.

At least that was the idea, it appeared. But it didn’t work.

The struggles have been headline worthy with Crosby off to the slowest start of his career and the lack of scoring from Kessel (who will certainly not be jokingly called a coach killer again) in his first year with Pittsburgh. Kessel is on pace to score 26 goals, just one more than he scored last year.