Penguins reach far to fill head coaching position

Mike Babcock, who knows what it’s like to win a Stanley Cup as a coach with the Detroit Red Wings and an Olympic gold medal as coach for Team Canada, was talking about star hockey player Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ coaching vacancy earlier this week.

“Anybody who gets a chance to coach him is going to be very, very lucky,” Mr. Babcock said.

That sweepstakes was decided Wednesday when the Penguins named Mike Johnston their 21st head coach since the team joined the NHL in 1967.

Mantra of new Penguins coach: 'Own the puck'

Mike Johnston was introduced today as the new head coach of the Penguins. He said he was "thrilled" to join the organization and will be joined by new assistant coach and former Pens player Rick Tocchet. (Video by Nate Guidry; 6/25/2014)

Mr. Johnston, 57, takes over a club with Mr. Crosby and fellow stars such as Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang but also a team that has fallen short of lofty expectations in the playoffs the past five seasons since the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup. Discontent grew to the point that general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylmsa were fired this spring after the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the second round.

Mr. Johnston has been an assistant and associate coach but never a head coach in the NHL. He spent the past five-plus seasons as coach and general manager of the Portland Winterhawks, a Western Hockey League junior club of teenage prospects.

Perhaps that could put Mr. Johnston in a pressure-cooker. Instead, he shares Mr. Babcock’s view.

“As a career coach, you aspire to get to these positions,” said Mr. Johnston, who never played pro hockey.

He oversaw a radical transformation with the Winterhawks, who had fallen on hard times on and off the ice. After he arrived in Portland early in the 2008-09 season, things changed not just for the better but for the tremendous.

In his first full season with the Winterhawks, they improved by a whopping 48 points and made the playoffs for the first time in four years.

His record with Portland was 231-114-10-10, and the Winterhawks reached the WHL final each of the past four seasons. Under Mr. Johnston, Portland was 14-4 in playoff series, and 20 of his players have been selected in the NHL draft, with another four projected to be drafted this weekend.

“Mike was a great coach for me,” said defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who was Mr. Johnston’s first bantam draft pick with Portland and the Penguins’ first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft. He is a top prospect and a candidate to play in the NHL next season if he recovers sufficiently from off-season shoulder surgery.

“He’s always thinking about how to help the team, what strategy we can use to win,” Mr. Pouliot said. “He’s pretty good at it, too. He doesn’t yell a lot, but, at the same time, he’ll hold the players accountable. He gives respect, but he demands it, too.”

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford first set his sights on Willie Desjardins to replace Mr. Bylsma out of an initial group of eight candidates. When a deal couldn’t be worked out late last week, Mr. Desjardins instead took Vancouver’s coaching job.

Mr. Rutherford didn’t include Mr. Johnston on his original wish list because he thought Mr. Johnston wasn’t available. Mr. Johnston also interviewed with Vancouver.

Once Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Johnston opened discussions a few days ago, a three-year contract soon followed. The Penguins also hired Rick Tocchet, a former Penguins winger and former head coach with Tampa Bay, as an assistant. Todd Reirden, an assistant under Bylsma, accepted a similar job with the Washington Capitals.

“Pittsburgh is going to love him,” Doug Piper, president of the Winterhawks, said of Mr. Johnston. “He’s just such a gentleman and such a great hockey person. People will learn just how great a cerebral coach he is. He’s really smart.”

Mr. Rutherford has said he wants a coach adept at making adjustments on the fly in games and the course of a playoff series.

Mr. Piper and Portland director of hockey operations Matt Bardsley recalled a game a couple of years ago against Seattle that illustrated Mr. Johnston’s ability to do that.

The Winterhawks were trailing by a goal with fewer than three seconds remaining in regulation and had a faceoff in Seattle’s end. Mr. Johnston, buying time to diagram a play, asked the officials whether a few tenths of a second should be added to the time.

“And then sure enough we go out, they dropped the puck, everybody did their job, we tied it up and won in a shootout,” Mr. Bardsley said. “It was a little chaotic — we had a sold-out building — [but] by him being in control, it settled the players down, and they were in control.”

Mr. Piper believes that will rub off on his players, even though he is moving up quite a few rungs from teens to millionaire pros.

“Once players know he knows what he’s talking about, they buy in quickly,” Mr. Piper said.

With a master’s degree in coaching science and the co-author of two books, “Simply the Best — Insights and Strategies from Great Hockey Coaches,” which picks the brains of 12 highly successful coaches, and “Hockey Plays and Strategies,” Mr. Johnston always is thinking about finding an edge.

In Portland, he visited the University of Oregon football practices and became friends with coach Chip Kelly. The two compared coaching philosophies and shared a penchant for a fast-paced game. Mr. Kelly now is coach of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles.

The biggest smudge on Mr. Johnston’s career record came when the WHL suspended him for most of the 2012-13 season, fined the Winterhawks $200,000 and stripped them of some draft picks for providing benefits to players and families against league rules during his first couple of seasons, something akin to college teams violating NCAA rules.

“We had made an error in the way we did things in the first couple of years,” Mr. Johnston said. “[The suspension] had nothing to do with coaching, but because I held a general manager/​coach position, that impacted the coaching side.”

Before going to Portland, Mr. Johnston was an assistant and associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks and an associate coach with the Los Angeles Kings for eight years of experience behind an NHL bench. He also has extensive international experience coaching with Team Canada at various levels, including the 1998 Olympics, the first Games that included NHL players.

“If you’re going to be an NHL coach, the coaching experience I’ve had is key, but certainly recognizing how NHL players are, the schedule, the demands of the schedule, that’s the experience I gained from being an associate coach in the league,” Mr. Johnston said.

He is a native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, near Mr. Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour.

“My parents still live there,” Mr. Johnston said. “My dad, at 80, still plays hockey regularly at Cole Harbour Place, where Sid grew up playing hockey.”

Mr. Johnston’s coaching career at a Canadian college began as sort of a fluke. He played hockey at Brandon University in Manitoba and, upon graduation, couldn’t find a teaching job. So he accepted an offer to be the hockey coach at Camrose College in Alberta.

It didn’t take that long for him to embrace being a hockey coach, and he began to think about matriculating to the NHL, perhaps with the overexuberance of youth.

“About four years into my job, I sent a letter to several NHL general managers,” Mr. Johnston recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve been coaching four years now at Camrose College, and I’m ready to coach in the NHL. Just keep me in mind.’

“It’s been a long time since that day when I wrote a note to those general managers, and I certainly have enjoyed the process of going through as a career coach and developing along the way.”

Shelly Anderson:, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published June 25, 2014 12:00 AM

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