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Coach Mike Johnston Is Building the Best Penguins Team of the Sidney Crosby Era

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistOctober 21, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston gives instructions during a time out in the third period of  an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. The Penguins won 3-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Four games into his career as an NHL head coach, Mike Johnston is breathing new life into the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team is off to a solid 3-1 start while leading the NHL in power-play efficiency and goals per game.

It's no easy feat to improve a club that has won back-to-back division championships, made eight straight playoff appearances and won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

The sample size is small so far, but it looks like Johnston's approach is breeding on-ice success and an improved team culture.

Before joining the Penguins, Johnston established a high-scoring, puck-possession playing style with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, who have become a perennial WHL powerhouse over the last four seasons.

"Our template is puck possession," Johnston told The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy of his Winterhawks two months before he was hired by Pittsburgh. "Skating, uptempo play. We want to play with pace from our defense to our forwards."

Though he didn't know it back in April, Johnston could have been talking about the style he'd deploy this season with the Penguins.

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Moving away from former coach Dan Bylsma's dump-and-chase approach, Johnston's strategy is all about maintaining control and dictating play.

The system has allowed Pittsburgh to generate an impressive average of 36.8 shots per game in the early going this year—a significant improvement over the 29.9 shots per game generated under Bylsma's leadership in 2013-14.

One thing that hasn't changed is finding Sidney Crosby's name at the top of the NHL scoring race, but Johnston didn't shy away from changing things up for the 2013-14 Art Ross Trophy winner.

Chris Kunitz remains on left wing, but Patric Hornqvist has shown instant chemistry on Crosby's right side and has quickly become one of the league's scoring leaders with eight points in four games.

On the second line, Evgeni Malkin has been scoring goals and looking engaged on the wing, with Brandon Sutter handling defensive responsibilities at center.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 09:  Pascal Dupuis #9 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first period goal with Evgeni Malkin #71 against the Anaheim Ducks during the season opener at Consol Energy Center on October 9, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Other on-ice changes include shorter shifts to help keep the pace high.

"Right at the beginning of the game, especially, he wants to get everybody going," defenseman Kris Letang told Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of Johnston's strategy. "You can’t predict if there’s going to be a power play or penalty kill, but he wants everybody to have a 20-second or 30-second shift right off the start to make sure everybody gets into it."

Pittsburgh's power play is typically among the NHL's best, but Johnston's team has gone to the next level through the first four games, with eight goals on 17 opportunities for a jaw-dropping 47.1 percent efficiency rate.

Not only is that more than 15 percent better than the second-ranked Philadelphia Flyers (31.8 percent) this season, it's more than twice as good as the 23.4 percent that tied the Penguins for the league lead in 2013-14.

It's virtually impossible to sustain this pace over an entire season. The most successful power-play team in NHL history was the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, who capitalized 31.88 percent of the time.

If Johnston can even keep his club clicking near 30 percent as the season wears on, he'll make headlines.

As well as generating results on the ice, Johnston's creating a positive culture in the room. "A very calm guy," according to Sidney Crosby (h/t Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail), Johnston's not averse to breaking hockey's traditional moulds in the right situations.

On October 20, he set the team's annual Open Practice for Kids to music—a tactic he also used while coaching the Winterhawks.

"He’ll do this a few times throughout the season," reports Michelle Crechiolo of Penguins.com. "Mainly when there’s a couple of days off between games as it’s a prime opportunity for a conditioning practice. The music helps give the guys energy as they’re skating harder than usual."

The Penguins boast some great names in their coaching history. Hall of Famers Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman led talented Pittsburgh teams to Stanley Cup wins in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

After just four games, it's too soon to say if Johnston will come close to matching the legacy of those legends. If he can keep the Penguins rolling at their current level, though, it won't be long before he's known as Pittsburgh's best coach of the Sidney Crosby era.

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