Forget about how new general manager Jim Rutherford missed out on his top choice to take over the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer. That's irrelevant to how Mike Johnston is going to come in and run this team. Despite the seemingly long jump from the WHL to the best pro-hockey league in the world, the 57-year-old has been around the game all his life and did an fantastic job with the Portland Winterhawks.
Talk is cheap, but for what it's worth, Johnston is already saying the right things. He knows that winning during the regular season is important, but it's in the playoffs where people earn the right to keep their jobs.
Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette captured the following comments from the new bench boss, who addressed the need to be in attack mode from the outset:
The bottom-line expectation for me is that, from training camp through the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs. The score is relevant but it's not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have to make us successful in the playoffs. So right from day one, we, as a coaching staff, want to be setting the table and anyone who looks at us will see that we're becoming a playoff-ready team.
As I've said so often, you never want to look back in the playoffs and say, ‘I wish I’d done this; I wish I’d been firmer in this area.’ So we’re going to put the building blocks in place and we’re not going to compromise in any areas to have that playoff-ready team.
All that should be magic to the ears of Penguins fans, who witnessed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing some of their most passionless hockey against the New York Rangers in the second round this year. Former head coach Dan Bylsma lost the room and had slowly zapped the fun out of coming to the rink and working every day. When you have a young and jubilant team, that approach isn't going to work, and it didn't.
Fun was a key element to the success that Bylsma had during the early stages of his time in Pittsburgh, but he lost sight of that as the pressure to win another Cup continued to mount. Don't expect Johnston to have a similar effect on the Penguins. He wants to be the coach who pushes the attack, not the coach who scrambles to adjust.
He is more than capable of making those in-game changes, though, which is one big reason Rutherford was happy to hire Johnston. The GM had this to say about his new coach, according to Collier:
A guy that was capable of making adjustments during games — that’s probably his strongest suit. He’s a guy that coached teams in tournaments, and, in order to be successful in those tournaments, you always have to make adjustments. We went through a very thorough search with many interviews. With what I learned through that and what I learned from different people and learned about the people who really wanted to come here and take on this challenge, I feel very strong(ly) that we got the right coach.
That stands in stark contrast to the way most pundits would describe Bylsma's ability to change on the fly.
The one phrase that seemed to pop up in every news release announcing the hire wasn't "ability to make adjustments," though. It was "up tempo." Assistant coach Rick Tocchet said, as per WPXI.com: "The way Mike is going to coach this team, the way these guys play is high tempo. It's something guys are going to enjoy."
That observation doesn't seem to be too off base. Johnston shared large chunks of his coaching philosophy with Winterhawks.com, and a few key points should really jump out at fans who tired of Bylsma's approach. It's worth reading in its entirety, but the coach utilized some forward-thinking ideologies on offense in Portland.
He sought to "[d]iscourage the “dump out” or “no look rim” style of play" and felt that "[s]afe plays stifle creativity." If he brings that same idea to Pittsburgh, that could mean a longer leash for the talented forwards on the team. That's good news for everyone in a Penguins uniform, but it could be trouble for the likes of the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
That means that the Penguins won't be looking for any sort of dump-and-chase play unless it's the only option. They're going to strive to win faceoffs, roll out of set plays and work the puck down the ice before defensive systems kick in.
Overall, his six pillars of thought on the offensive side of the puck were (again, from the philosophical breakdown he provided to the official site of the Hawks):
- Be a First Pass Team
- Shoot the Puck and Drive the Net ("Sounds simple but volume of shots are key")
- Activate Your Defense into the Attack ("Responsibility is in the hands of the puckcarrier…don't blame the defence for creating options")
- Stretch Out the Offensive Zone ("On shots off the rush move the puck low/high right away and catch them over backchecking")
- Cycle With a Purpose ("Challenge their ability to contain by driving the seams and going to the net with the puck")
- Work Set Plays ("Regroups geared to beat the trap and hit their blue line with speed")
All of this would fly in Steel City. Some changes will likely be made, but Johnston always wants to be the team that is attacking. Yet he also recognizes that strong offense comes from sound defense and preparation. He'll be comfortable with players taking risks when they don't have the puck, but he'll want to see the carrier really taking care of that particular possession.
The Penguins have a lot of chemistry to work with, and several high-IQ players adorn the roster. Breaking them free and allowing them to push seams and set screens could open up a lot of options in the offensive zone. That seems to be the name of the game for Johnston: options.
He wants to see his forwards get the puck back to the defensemen when the opposition is collapsing but also wants to see the defense push the puck toward the net before backcheckers can catch up with the play on the rush. Johnston wants to see his net-presence defender out of the defensive zone before the low forward, which means bodies are going to be flying through the neutral zone as soon as there's a turnover, save or faceoff win.
It's a bit hyperbolic, but it seems like the system that Johnston has been developing in Portland is perfect for the Penguins now. They have the offensive firepower on the blue line to threaten enough and stretch defenses out, and the Penguins obviously have the forwards that are needed to execute intelligent plays at full speed.
Another encouraging note: Johnston seems to be on to the secret that possession and high shot volume lead to wins. No more looking for the perfect plays and no more trying to jam the square peg into the round hole. The Penguins won't be "taking what's given" like they tended to do under Bylsma. They'll be the ones swinging first instead of looking to counterpunch, and that should be great news for Penguins fans.
The last seven weeks or so have been trying for this team and organization. With the intelligent and understated moves Rutherford has made coupled with Johnston's philosophy, this appears to be a team on the upswing.
Keep an eye on this space in the coming days, as we'll be taking a look at what Johnston will bring on the defensive side of the puck next.