Gene Collier: Mike Johnston’s ideas well-suited to his task

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Mike Johnston wore a black suit to his first Pittsburgh news conference, and though I wouldn’t read much into that necessarily, the complementary white shirt and black tie did make him look a bit like a limo driver, which is by no means the worst metaphor available for the head coach of the Penguins.

In a sense, he’ll be driving a pimped-out stretch filled with rich young people, some of whom have all kinds of decorous hardware in the trunk — your Hart trophies, Art Ross trophies, etc. — but haven’t been able to find the more exclusive neighborhoods of the NHL postseason since what feels like the 8th grade picnic.

“The bottom-line expectation for me is that from training camp to the first part of the season and throughout, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs,” Johnston said Wednesday. “The score is relevant, but it’s not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have that will 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.

Two-Minute Warning: A new coach, plus a bit on biting

PG columnist Gene Collier opines on the latest sports news. And somehow, that includes a report on World Cup soccer. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 6/26/2014)

“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.”

With free agency starting in just five days, Johnston can’t see the full inventory of place-settings and goblets and flatware for this table he’s planning on setting, but the centerpiece hasn’t changed, and Sidney Crosby as that centerpiece isn’t exactly a misplaced metaphor either, is it? After all, in the playoffs of late, Sid’s been smack at the center of Pittsburgh’s presentation, but after that, not much happens.

Johnston claimed no singular knowledge of the inner workings of superstar psyches, but his long resume includes a working exposure at the Olympics and the World Championships to such luminaries as Wayne Gretzky, Ray Bourque, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Rob Blake, and Martin St. Louis.

When it comes to experience, 65-year-old general manager Jim Rutherford, 57-year-old Johnston and his 50-year-old top assistant Rick Tocchet can unfold their dossiers to the length of any triumvirate in the league, and Penguins management hopes that has relevancy despite the fact that immediate history demonstrates it does not.

The previous time there was a coach search around here, the arrow stopped on Dan Bylsma, whose coaching resume wasn’t much more than his Baby Penguins business card. Less than four months later, he won the Stanley Cup. Then, he went on to win more games and more playoff games than any coach in Penguins history.

So there’s that.

This time, after six weeks of a process pocked with public-relations pratfalls, the Penguins thought Johnston was all but delivered to the Vancouver Canucks vacancy, which went instead the last person Pittsburgh had interviewed, Willie Desjardins. And so the arrow spins.

For his part, Rutherford insisted that he got in Johnston the trait for which he’d hunted most earnestly.

“A guy that was capable of making adjustments during games — that’s probably his strongest suit,” said Rutherford. “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.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if Rutherford is right.

Johnston outlined a rather center-centric puck-possession system he said the Penguins roster is tailor-made for, and I’m sure he feels without saying so that Tocchet should be able to relate to the specific needs of Johnston’s superstars and perhaps even administer a verbal elbow when one is warranted.

What Johnston needs from Tocchet is just about exactly what Tocchet contributed the last time he worked with Mario Lemieux, 48 goals, 61 assists, and 252 penalty minutes across the winter of 1992-93 — but this time in street clothes.

Tocchet expressed his excitement to be working with a coach who “thinks outside the box,” but no one Wednesday mentioned the one Mike Johnston attribute that will most excite the Penguins audience:

He’s not Dan Bylsma.

Is there urgency to Johnston’s situation?

Oh yeah.

This wasn’t the slickest transition but it wasn’t terribly destructive, either. That won’t be the case if Lemieux finds himself compelled to say, “All right, everybody out of the limo.”


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