Penguins new coach Mike Johnston’s to-do list is a long one



Mike Johnston was named coach of the Penguins Wednesday.

Who exactly he’ll be coaching won’t be known for a while, though.

No fewer than 11 members of the 2013-14 squad are eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1 and most, if not all, figure to be working elsewhere next season.

That leaves a lot of roster holes to be filled.

What’s more, there’s a distinct possibility that the team’s foundation could be altered by one or more high-impact trades, perhaps before the NHL draft in Philadelphia ends Saturday.

Comments on the Penguins hiring new coach Mike Johnston
“He’s part of what turned our franchise around. Pittsburgh is going to love him. 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.” -- Doug Piper, president of the Portland Winterhawks

“He knows the right things to say to get the team motivated. He can make that speech when he needs to or lay the hammer down and try to wake the team up. … 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 defenseman prospect Derrick Pouliot, who played for Johnston in Portland

“What impressed me the most is how he manages his staff and his players, how he’s able to get his message across. He knows what he wants, but he has a very good delivery.” -- Matt Bardsley, assistant general manager of the Portland Winterhawks

“Eighty-five percent of teams kind of do the same thing. It’s the 10 or 15 percent that will be the difference makers. I think that’s what Mike Johnston will be for the Pittsburgh Penguins.” -- new Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet, an 18-year NHL veteran

“I feel very strongly that we got the right coach. Mike has got great experience at many levels of hockey — international, special teams for Team Canada. He’s coached in the National Hockey League as an associate coach for several years, and he brings great experience to this team. Something I was looking for in a head coach was somebody who could make adjustments in games, and that’s probably his strongest suit.” -- Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford

General manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday that the volume of trade discussions in which he has engaged has been “nothing out of the ordinary,” even though there was more talk than usual around the league. He acknowledged that could change quickly.

“A lot of things happen real fast from Thursday to Friday to Saturday [in a draft week],” he said. “Once you get 24 hours out from the actual draft, that’s when things really start to heat up.”

While Rutherford did not rule out making a major deal, he also suggested a major overhaul isn’t necessarily in order.

“Despite the fact that people get anxious about this team, this is a very good team that had 109 points [in the regular season],” he said. “I don’t believe it’s a team that needs major changes.”

Regardless of what happens over the next few days, the Penguins’ lineup will remain a work-in-progress, likely until around the 2015 trade deadline.

Still, just as Johnston’s core coaching beliefs — he stresses “puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace,” with roots in responsible team defense — aren’t likely to change, neither are a few of the things he can do to enhance the Penguins chances of performing to expectations next season.

To wit:

1. Put players in the best position to succeed.

Perhaps it was an expression of former coach Dan Bylsma’s confidence in the abilities of world-class talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he rarely seemed to work at getting the most favorable personnel matchups for them.

Although Crosby might be the world’s finest player, he’s going to be able to accomplish a lot more if he isn’t being forced to lug the likes of Zdeno Chara around the ice every time he goes over the boards.

There’s nothing wrong with a coach having faith in his players, but working to keep key ones away from particular defenders — or on the ice against specific, vulnerable opponents — should be a staple of every coach’s repertoire.

2. Reconfigure the defense corps. Quickly.

With the possibility that free-agents-to-be Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland will move on and Olli Maatta possibly out of the early season mix because of shoulder surgery, the Penguins’ defense figures to have a radically different look this fall.

There is no shortage of promising young defense prospects — guys like Derrick Pouliot (also recovering from shoulder surgery), Simon Despres, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, among others — in the pipeline, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to log big minutes at this level.

Johnston will have to try to get a lot of mileage out of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Robert Bortuzzo while figuring out which young defensemen are ready to move up to the NHL.

It won’t be a surprise if Rutherford tries to add a veteran body or two on the blueline via trades or free agency.

3. Establish identities for the third and fourth lines.

Brandon Sutter, the third-line center most of the past two seasons, seemed to have everyone except Scuderi and backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff as a linemate in 2013-14. He might have a speedy, skilled winger one shift, a grinding guy with no hands to speak of the next.

That not only limited Sutter’s effectiveness, but prevented the line from developing a personality and, more important, settling into a consistent role. It almost doesn’t matter as much what Johnston expects the bottom two lines to give him as it does that he construct them with logic and a purpose.

4. Make it fun.

While it likely was mostly a reflection of the low-key personalities of the Penguins most prominent players, their locker room was a fairly subdued place most of the time last season.

Oh, the players enjoyed winning, but sometimes the pressure to do well seemed to verge on suffocating.

That’s not going to change anytime soon — “You want to be in a situation where there’s pressure to win,” new assistant coach Rick Tocchet said — but having the atmosphere be a little more raucous and a bit less businesslike at times might not be the worst thing.

Good special teams, reliable goaltending and timely scoring are critical to success, but there are occasions when a shaving-cream pie delivered to a teammate’s face on live TV can serve a purpose, too.


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

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