Bob Smizik: Johnston’s top job: Fix Crosby

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The Penguins have their man. In about 10 months we might have a rough idea if he’s the right one.

Mike Johnston might not have been a smash hit when introduced Wednesday as the Penguins‘‍ new coach, but he handled himself well. There’s reason to believe he can be a good coach for this team, which badly needs one.

The strongest statement Johnston made concerned his focus on the postseason. The Penguins have become known, and rightly so, as a team that dominates in the regular season -- make that the meaningless regular season -- and usually collapses in the meaningful postseason.

He said, ''The bottom-line expectation for me is that from training camp through the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs. The score is relevant, but it's not as relevant as the habits that are going to make us successful in the playoffs.”

Well said. I have annoyed and even angered hockey fans by persistently referring to the NHL regular season as virtually meaningless for teams like the Penguins. They are one of the best 16 teams in the league. They are going to make the playoffs, which is all the regular season determines. Oh, sure, the regular season is the basis for playoff seeding. But we’ve seen almost every year with the Penguins -- and with other teams -- that seeding means little in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Johnston said all the right things. He talked about his humble beginning in coaching. He let it be known that while he’s coming directly from Junior A, he has plenty of NHL experience -- including associate head coach of the Los Angeles King. Best of all, he said, ''I'm thrilled to be standing here today.’’

It should make no difference that Johnston wasn’t the first choice of General Manager Jim Rutherford. Some first choices fail. Some second choices go on to Hall of Fame careers. Johnston will be judged by his strategic and motivational skills, not by when he was hired.

Johnston’s greatest challenge will not be installing a system that will best utilize the Penguins’‍ superior offensive talent. No, what he needs to do is find out what’s wrong with Sidney Crosby and fix it.

Beat reporter Rob Rossi, appearing on “The David Todd Show” on 970 ESPN Wednesday, talked at some length about the absence of joy in Crosby.

Crosby moped through the postseason and produced a horrible performance. He never looked like the Crosby of old. Tuesday night, he received three prestigious awards, including the NHL MVP, and instead of being in a celebratory mood, he looked like, as Rossi put it, ''someone had just punched him in the stomach.’’

It’s possible the Penguins‘‍ plans to rejuvenate Crosby go beyond Johnston. Rick Tocchet was named an assistant coach to Johnston Wednesday. He was hired by the team, not Johnston. In an article about the hirings, Scott Burnside of ESPN.com wrote, ''If guys don’t want to play hard for Tocchet, they don’t want to play hard.’’

He also pointed out that Tocchet has a close relationship with Mario Lemieux. The two are former teammates. Maybe Lemieux thinks Tocchet can fix what ails Crosby.

Of course, Crosby, a famous self-starter, might rejuvenate himself in the offseason. He’s been known to do that. But Johnston needs to make certain that happens. If he has to lean on Tocchet to achieve the desired results, so be it.

There’s a tendency to call this the beginning of the Mike Johnston era in Penguins hockey. But it’s not. Going back to 2005 and very much continuing through today, this is the Sidney Crosby era in Penguins hockey.


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