Mike Johnston was a late arrival to the party of Pittsburgh Penguins head-coaching candidates but ended up celebrating the most as the last one hanging around.
Johnston, 57, was named Dan Bylsma’s replacement on Wednesday, returning to the NHL after five-plus seasons in junior hockey as head coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
Former NHL player Rick Tocchet, who last coached in the league with Tampa Bay, was named his assistant while the Penguins announced that Tony Granato and Todd Reirden wouldn't return. Another assistant, Jacques Martin, will remain with the club in a yet-to-be-determined capacity, and goalie coach Mike Bales and video co-ordinator Andy Saucier will stay in their current roles.
Bylsma was fired June 6 after the New York Rangers eliminated Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit with three consecutive victories.
'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.' - New Penguins head coach Mike Johnston
The Penguins are 2-7 all-time in Game 7s and have won only four times in nine playoff series over the past five seasons, with each loss to lower-seeded teams.
Johnston understands the onus to win on a given night, but stressed the focus will be on preparing Pittsburgh for the challenges of hockey in May and June, not October or November.
"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," Johnston said. "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."
Recently hired Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford settled on Johnston after a lengthy interview process that included an ill-fated run at Willie Desjardins, who opted to take the vacant job in Vancouver.
Regardless of the path taken, Rutherford is confident he ended up at the right destination.
"I feel very strongly that we've got the right coach," Rutherford said.
Johnston, a former Vancouver Canucks assistant and associate coach, leaves Portland with a 217-80 record and four straight post-season appearances. The Winterhawks improved by 48 points in Johnston’s first season and made the playoffs for the first time in four years.
The reason he wasn’t on Rutherford’s original list of coaching candidates is because Rutherford believed Johnston already was committed to another team.
With a 51-24-7 mark, the Penguins won the Metropolitan Division this past season and finished second in the East.
After beating Columbus in six games to open the playoffs in a series that could have easily gone the other way, Pittsburgh managed just 14 goals against the Rangers, scoring one goal in each of the final three contests.
"The core group is exactly where I want it," Johnston said.
Good, because they're not going anywhere.
Instead, it's everything around centres Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who earned his second Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player on Tuesday, that is changing.
OK with pressure
Johnston is OK with the pressure. With the 26-year-old Crosby and the 27-year-old Malkin in the midst of their primes, there are worst places to start.
"This group wants to win," he said. "They've won the Stanley Cup [in 2009], and I believe they want to do it again."
Johnston, who hails from Dartmouth, N.S. — near Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour — will draw on his six years working under Marc Crawford on the Canucks bench and two years with Crawford in Los Angeles.
The married father of two children arrives with an impressive resume, having first coached at the Canadian college level at Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta (now Augustana University College) and later at the University of Calgary and University of New Brunswick.
He worked full-time for the Canadian national men’s team from 1994 to 1999, serving as associate coach, head coach and GM. Johnston coached Canada at the Spengler Cup (winning three gold medals in as many attempts), under-18 championship, world junior championship (two golds in two attempts), world championship (two gold, two silver and a bronze in six trips) and at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics when the Canadian squad failed to win a medal.
"Mike comes to Pittsburgh with great experience at all levels of hockey," Rutherford told the Penguins' official website. "He has terrific knowledge of the game and proven leadership ability.
"His coaching style is going to be good for the players we have here with teh Penguins — it's an up-tempo style, but it begins from deep in the defensive zone. We're very excited to have him."
Co-author of 2 books
Away from the ice, Johnston has a master’s degree in coaching science and has co-authored two books with ex-NHL forward Ryan Walter, Simply the Best – Insights and Strategies from Great Hockey Coaches, which profiles 12 highly successful coaches, and Hockey Plays and Strategies.
He is familiar with at least one Penguins player, former Portland defenceman Derrick Pouliot, whom Pittsburgh drafted in the first round in 2012.
Tocchet, 50, was fired by the Lightning on April 12, 2010 after the team placed 25th in the 30-team NHL at 34-36-12, missing the playoffs for a third straight season.
Tampa Bay improved significantly under Tocchet, jumping from 19 wins in the 2008-09 campaign to 34 the following season.
"There are teams that wish they had [Pittsburgh's] problems," Tocchet said. "The way Mike [Johnston] is going to coach this team, the way these guys play is high tempo. It's something guys are going to enjoy."
Tocchet, who had taken over from the fired Barry Melrose on an interim basis just 16 games into the 2008-09 season, left the Lightning with one season remaining on his two-year contract.
"Rick is going to be a very valuable member of the staff here," Rutherford said. "He was an outstanding NHL player, a guy who brought toughness and intensity every night along with a high level of skill. The fans in Pittsburgh know that first-hand."
Tocchet's most productive NHL season came with the Penguins in 1992-93 when, playing alongside Mario Lemieux, he scored 48 goals and 109 points to go with 252 penalty minutes.
Tocchet, who retired as a player in 2002 after 1,144 regular-season games, started his NHL coaching career as an assistant with Colorado in the 2002-03 season