New Penguins coach Johnston brings in versatile assistant



Just about two weeks into the job as Penguins coach, Mike Johnston completed his staff Thursday by hiring assistant Gary Agnew.

That leaves Johnston, oh, roughly a thousand things to do before training camp opens in a couple of months — chores that will take him to Russia and back and will have him pondering the roles of his players, including monitoring the health of some.

Agnew, 54, joins former Penguins winger Rick Tocchet and holdover goaltending coach Mike Bales on Johnston’s staff. In addition, Johnston said the Penguins are working with retained assistant Jacques Martin to define his role.

Johnston called Agnew “a communicator and teacher, and I like his coaching demeanor.”

Agnew spent the past two seasons as a St. Louis Blues assistant, and earlier spent four seasons with Columbus, mostly as an assistant but with a short stint as interim head coach. Most of that time was spent with longtime head coach Ken Hitchcock.

“I had a great mentor in Ken Hitchcock the past six years,” Agnew said.

Johnston has not sorted out exact duties for his assistants — who might work with forwards or defensemen, with the power play and the penalty-kill. Agnew, who also has spent six years as a head coach in the American Hockey League and 11 in the junior Ontario Hockey League, expects to fit in wherever he is needed.

“I’ve been coaching so long, I’ve pretty much worked with everybody,” he said. “One season in Columbus at one point I even took over in the goalie department for a few months. I think I’m experienced in all areas.”

Johnston and his staff will convene next week when the Penguins hold their annual development camp at Consol Energy Center. Everyone’s role could be sorted out then.

“I have an idea of what I want to do,” Johnston said. “I want to talk to Rick and Gary a little more about their strengths.”

That won’t be Johnston’s only task at development camp, the on-ice portion of which will be run by the organization’s AHL coach, John Hynes.

“I’m really looking forward to development camp,” Johnston said. “We get to see some of the depth players and players that have been in the AHL. There will be interaction with the players and getting to know the players. We’ll be giving the players a brief overview of how we’re going to play.

“And we get to work as a staff.”

After development camp, Johnston — who said he has touched base with “90 percent” of the Penguins players — will tag along with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar on his annual trip to Moscow to work with center Evgeni Malkin. Johnston wants to meet Malkin in person and get to know him.

Johnston and his staff then will reconvene in August to start planning for training camp in September.

He said he already has given some thought to things such as line combinations and defensive pairings, although, “I want to watch some more games from last year,” he said. Some of his decisions could be affected by the availability of players.

In particular, Johnston said he doesn’t expect young defensemen and 2012 first-round draft picks Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot to be recovered sufficiently from offseason shoulder surgeries to be ready for the start of the season, but likely soon after. Maatta spent all of 2013-14 in the NHL, while Pouliot is a candidate to play with the Penguins in 2014-15.

Because of the losses in free agency of defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland, the Penguins might need to play defensive prospects such as Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson early in the season.

“I think that’s how you develop as an organization, if you start to play your young guys,” Johnston said.

One other situation Johnston has been monitoring involves reigning NHL MVP and scoring leader Sidney Crosby, who has a wrist injury that likely will require arthroscopic surgery as soon as next week.

“We’ll see what happens,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t sound as if he would be out for a long amount of time [if it requires surgery].”

•NOTE — The Penguins re-signed two of their unrestricted free agents — winger Jayson Megna and Samuelsson — to one-year, two-way contracts. Megna’s contract calls for $874,125 at the NHL level, while Samuelsson’s would pay him $550,000. Megna, 24, had five goals and four assists in his first 36 NHL games last season, and also dressed for two playoff games. Samuelsson, 22, played in his first five NHL games last season.


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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