Mike Johnston moves to top of Penguins coaching list


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Mike Johnston wasn't on Jim Rutherford's original list of coaching candidates.

Today, it looks as if his name might be the only one there.

Johnston, coach and general manager of the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, has spoken with Rutherford about the Penguins' coaching vacancy and is expected to meet with him again in Philadelphia, site of this weekend's NHL draft, perhaps as early as today.

Rutherford, as he has since the coaching search began last week, declined Tuesday to identify Johnston or any other candidate, but acknowledged the current field of contenders is not large.

"I've had a few conversations by phone with people [over the past few days], but, in Philadelphia, the plan right now is to talk to one person," he said.

An individual familiar with the search said Rutherford has been favorably impressed not only by his discussions with Johnston, but by what he has learned through background research. Rutherford said the candidate with whom he intends to meet in Philadelphia, presumed to be Johnston, was not on his original list only because he believed that candidate already was committed to another club.

Johnston has been an associate coach in Los Angeles and Vancouver and was a candidate to succeed John Tortorella in Vancouver before Willie Desjardins was hired last week. Desjardins had emerged as a candidate to replace Dan Bylsma and suggested that not being allowed to choose his own assistant coaches with the Penguins was a factor in taking the Vancouver job.

Rutherford did not dispute that the Penguins' next coach might not be the only one who has input on the makeup of his staff.

"We have to see first who the new person is and what his needs are and what direction he wants to go," he said. "Then, he and I will work together."

Johnston coached one of the Penguins' top prospects, defenseman Derrick Pouliot, with the Winterhawks and is partial to an up-tempo, attacking style that should play to the strengths of the Penguins' high-end talent.

The most significant blemish on Johnston's record is that he was suspended for most of the 2012-13 season after a WHL investigation concluded that Portland had provided illegal benefits, some involving travel, to players and their families. Johnston, believed to have been traveling to Philadelphia Tuesday, could not be reached for comment.

When Rutherford isn't meeting with a coaching candidate, preparing for the draft with his scouts or contemplating trade offers, he likely will be trying to sell potential free agents on the merits of joining the Penguins.

The NHL's free-agent signing period begins July 1, and clubs were allowed to begin talking with free-agents-to-be from other teams at 12:01 a.m. today. Contracts, however, are not supposed to be negotiated or agreed on before July 1.

Rutherford steadfastly has insisted that upgrading the third and fourth lines is a priority, although he has not said which players from those units he intends to retain or replace.

That's not an oversight on his part; Rutherford said Tuesday that he will not tell any free-agent-to-be before July 1 that the Penguins have no interest in bringing him back because of the possibility that developments could leave a void that the player would fill if he doesn't sign elsewhere.

"I always like to keep the door open, with the understanding that once July 1 comes, you know that player could be gone to another team," he said.

Rutherford said he is not close to re-signing any of his own impending free agents, and at least some of their agents say they haven't heard from Rutherford since he replaced Ray Shero as general manager June 6.

Ross Gurney, who represents fourth-line left winger Tanner Glass, said via email that he had "some preliminary discussions with Jason [Botterill, now the associate GM] a few months ago" but that he has "not spoken with Jim or Jason since the management/coaching changes."

Allain Roy, agent for fourth-line center Joe Vitale and defenseman Deryk Engelland, said he has not had contract talks with the Penguins about either of his clients. They, like Glass, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents if not re-signed by July 1. Defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and forwards Jussi Jokinen, Lee Stempniak and Brian Gibbons are among the other Penguins who will be free to sign elsewhere if the Penguins don't give them new contracts.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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