Mike Johnston takes over Penguins, but will junior success translate?
As Mike Johnston, a hugely successful junior hockey coach, takes over the Penguins, he'll start with his share of skeptics.
Mike Johnston joins the Pittsburgh Penguins with a healthy dose of skepticism around the hire. It is already known that he was not the team’s first choice. He wasn’t even among the first eight people the club reportedly interviewed to fill the vacancy left by Dan Bylsma’s firing. Yet in the days after the Pens struck out on their top choice, believed to be new Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, it took very little time for new GM Jim Rutherford to vet and hire Johnston.
Rutherford said that through the lengthy interview process, which reportedly included veteran NHL coaches like Ron Wilson and Marc Crawford, and new hires in other organizations like Carolina's Bill Peters and Desjardins, he felt strongly they got the right coach. It's a bit of a tough sell in the wake of all the reports that swirled around the coaching process and the rather uncomfortable way Bylsma was let go, but by many accounts Johnston is a fantastic coach.
Johnston comes to the Penguins direct from the major junior ranks. The former Portland Winterhawks coach built an impressive resume as a head coach in the Western Hockey League. Johnston came into that job partway through the 2008-09 season, inheriting a team that was the league’s worst. They finished that campaign 19-48-3. By the following year, the Winterhawks were instantly more competitive and they eventually became one of the class organizations of the entire Canadian Hockey League.
Johnston is hardly just a junior coach, though. He has nine seasons of experience as an NHL assistant or associate coach, which included stints with the Canucks and Los Angeles Kings. The league has changed quite a bit in the six years since Johnston was last coaching in it, but that experience remains relevant.
Now Johnston enters a job with complications, but little sympathy. The new Pens head coach inherits a team that has its holes, but it also has some of the best players in the world. With two Hart Trophy winners on the roster in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, no one is going to confuse the Penguins with the several teams going through rebuilding phases. But the pressure on this team is immense.
Considering that ownership fired a coach with a .670 winning percentage, Johnston has to know going in that what the team accomplishes during the regular season, the 82-game marathon they slug through year after year, will not matter. Success in Pittsburgh will be measured in Stanley Cups and that’s not singular for a reason.
Johnston, however, has been a winner in the WHL, with a winning percentage above .700 in his five full seasons at the helm. Over each of the last four seasons, the team scored no less than 303 goals per 72-game season and reached the WHL finals at the end of each campaign. But with all that success in the regular season and reaching the final four times, the Winterhawks have won the postseason title once and it just so happened to be the one year Johnston wasn’t on the bench (more on that in a bit).
Success in junior hockey is hard to gauge, however. There are a lot of variables that exist in the major junior ranks that do not anywhere else. Coaching is as necessary in junior as it is anywhere else. They are the stewards of player development in the most crucial years before prospects are to make the jump to the next level. But winning at the junior level isn’t like winning in the NHL.
Johnston’s arrival in Portland was a key moment for the franchise, but the first season on the road to competitiveness included a roster that looked far different than the one that won 19 games the season before.
It should be no surprise that Portland’s 44-win campaign in 2009-10 was aided by the arrival of Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Ty Rattie (who appeared in only 10 games the season before). All three would become high draft picks. Johansen and Niederreiter going No. 4 and No. 5, while Rattie ended up just outside of the first round at second overall. That was also the second season for Penguins first-round pick Joe Morrow and Luca Sbisa was a mid-season acquisition. Eventual second-round pick Brad Ross also was an impact player for the Winterhawks.
The next year, the Winterhawks included all of those players except Sbisa, but added eventual 13th overall pick Sven Baertschi and current Penguins top prospect Derrick Pouliot, who was an eighth overall selection.
The following year, they had a similar cast and then in 2012-13 they added all-world prospect Seth Jones to the mix and also had eventual Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Nic Petan scoring at a blinding pace.
The Portland Winterhawks became a destination that top players wanted to play at. Jones, for instance, wouldn’t sign with the Everett Silvertips who drafted him, which forced the Tips to trade him to the more desirable Portland.
Johnston deserves a heck of a lot of credit for making that place a destination, but a lot of coaches are going to win with those players and win often. The Winterhawks destroyed a lot of teams in the regular season. But if the Penguins are so concerned about championships and not regular-season success, Johnston’s resume is missing that one big piece.
As noted, the Winterhawks did win the WHL postseason title in 2013, but Johnston was not on the bench for that run. He had been suspended for most of the 2012-13 season by the WHL that November for alleged player benefit violations. He was also fined $200,000.
The major junior leagues have rules laid out for what kind of benefits players can receive for being members of a certain team. They're meant to be uniform to prevent certain teams from gaining a competitive advantage by offering players more incentives to join their team.
The Winterhawks said they were dinged for providing plane tickets to certain players' families, paying for players' summer training programs and providing cell phones to the team captains. While those seem harmless, they're not permitted under the rules and could be seen as incentives for players to join their team. It's very NCAA-like in that regard.
As a result of the player benefit violations, the club also lost draft privileges including no first-round picks from 2014 to 2017. Then Johnston had to watch his assistant coach lead his team to the only WHL title they won in his time there.
Recruiting and player benefit violations have been handled a bit more severely in the CHL over the years, but it has widely been rumored to be more prevalent for the last decade or so. The same year the Winterhawks got slammed with sanctions, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League also got dinged.
It puts a bit of a black mark on what the team accomplished as it could be suggested that they acquired players through rather nefarious means. And as noted, the team had become prolific in acquiring top talent from Europe and the U.S., which helped them gain an advantage over other teams.
Though the sanctions aren’t to be ignored, Johnston as a coach still did a lot right while in Portland. You can’t deny that Johnston has helped players get better. He has taken good players and has guided them to play better and win a heck of a lot. He’s graduated a high number of recent players to the NHL and some of them have become high-impact contributors in rather short order.
He’s also been heavily involved with Hockey Canada as a frequent assistant coach on national teams, including the 1998 Canadian Olympic team, six men’s national teams at the World Championship and twice at the World Juniors. He was also the head coach at the 1999 World Championship and 2009 World Under-18 Championship. A coach doesn’t get those kinds of jobs without a great deal of respect from those in the coaching community.
The question that will surround Johnston immediately is if he can take that junior success and make it translate in a league where his teams will be on more equal footing with their opponents. There’s no question the Winterhawks play an exciting, high-paced brand of hockey that is predicated on puck possession and pace. They score a ton of goals and give every team they play against challenges. If Johnston brings that style to Pittsburgh, which certainly has all the tools to play that style, the Penguins will be an exciting team to watch.
The club has key pieces to build around, but until Rutherford addresses the bottom of the lineup, the results may not be terribly different than they were under Bylsma.
Johnston deserves the chance to take the job on the merits of his own success, but he will continually be held up against Bylsma, and probably Desjardins as well. And if ownership is so eager for another Stanley Cup, as they should be, Johnston is going to have to deliver rather quickly in his first gig as an NHL head coach.
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