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Pens hire Mike Johnston as coach, sign him to three-year deal

Jun 25, 2014, 9:23 AM EDT

Mike Johnston Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has found his man to lead the team.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie, the Penguins have tabbed Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston to be the new coach of the Penguins. Dreger adds that they’ve signed him to a three-year contract and will be introduced at noon by the team.

Update (12:30 p.m. ET): The Penguins made it official.

After missing out on Willie Desjardins and Bill Peters, Rutherford lands Johnston who comes with a fair bit of experience although most of it of late has come at the junior level in the WHL.

Johnston has been coach of the Winterhawks for the past six seasons and has brought them to the WHL Final four times, winning once and taking them to the 2013 Memorial Cup Final where they lost to Halifax.

He does have NHL experience as an assistant coach. He spent six seasons in Vancouver as an assistant to Marc Crawford and joined Crawford’s staff in Los Angeles for two seasons. Now he’ll be coaching Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang while they’re in the heart of their primes.

  1. mangoman1966 - Jun 25, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    Hope he does well. It will all come down to injuries and hoping they are minimal this season.

  2. steelpenbucs87 - Jun 25, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    So I’m admittedly unfamiliar with this guy, and the research I have done hasn’t turned up too much besides some of his general hockey philosophies and some indiscretions with respect to player benefits (although it seems fairly innocuous). Any Winterhawks or WHL fans have thoughts on him?

    • cheeseheadbybirth - Jun 25, 2014 at 1:07 PM

      I’ve been going to Winterhawks games for over 20 years and my first thought after hearing this news was “bummer!” I’m happy for him but he’s been a huge part of the Winterhawks’ success (Western Conference champions the past four years in a row!) because he’s also been the GM and has a great eye for talent. Success in the WHL is usually cyclical because of the age restrictions and players being drafted by the NHL and moving to their farm teams. He’s done a fantastic job coaching teenagers. Now we’ll see how well he does coaching men.

  3. lowenni - Jun 25, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    I feel like this is either going to go really well for the Pens and they’ll flourish in a new system, or this WHL coach won’t get the respect he needs from some of the NHL’s biggest stars and the season will be absolutely horrendous.

    • bmscalise - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:24 AM

      Because there was a mutiny when Dan Bylsma took over – with no NHL experience?

      These are grown men who want to win and are accountable to the organization (and want to keep their jobs). They aren’t children. You actually believe Sid, Geno, Kunitz, Letang, etc, would tank the team because they don’t want to listen or implement the guy’s system? He’ll sink or rise on his merits as a coach, and we won’t know until the season progresses what those are.

      I do like the fact that, as a junior coach, he’s a teacher. He might actually teach our young players and let them play – something Bylsma was never willing to do (what I believe was one of his substantial flaws as a coach).

  4. jkulha86 - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    His success or lack off success all depends on how well Crosby and Malkin accept his style

    • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:59 AM

      I don’t know about that, to be honest. Crosby will play any style and probably better than most – Malkin is going to be Malkin out there. My point is, people take Crosby and Malkin as the complete barometer of the team (even the rest of the team sometimes)- I think that’s a trap. They need buy-in from everyone. But they also need a system that isn’t set up to force Crosby and Malkin do all the work….they need everyone to contribute. Hopefully that’s what we’ll see.

      • jpelle82 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:56 AM

        hopefully now there’s a lot less of other guys watching and hoping crosby and malkin do all the work for them. that’s why sutter was the best guy for most of the playoffs, he was creating for himself, not hoping someone else would do all the heavylifting for him…cough…james neal…cough. how much you want to bet derrick pouliot has an inside track now, if he didn’t already?

      • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 12:07 PM

        Agreed – I would have agreed with the Pouliot thing a month and a half ago, but with him and Maatta both being out for at least four months, I’m not sure what will happen there now. Pouliot really needed this summer to train.

    • cheeseheadbybirth - Jun 25, 2014 at 1:10 PM

      His style is skate fast and attack. I’ve enjoyed watching the Winterhawks score a ton of goals the past four years.

  5. bdywrks - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    This means pens are all-in on Babcock.

    • apkyletexas - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:37 AM

      Yup. I can’t figure out any other reason for hiring Rutherford and Johnston – one year place-holders for Babcock. I guess Babcock will be given coach and GM duties, and these two will be cast aside. Hope the Pens don’t sign Johnston to an expensive multi-year contract – I’m assuming based on his experience he probably comes cheap.

      • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:01 AM

        Except it’s a three year contract. Read this:

        Fans go SO much by what they know…except we don’t know much abotu this guy. So it’s easier to assume they are just going to go after someone we’ve heard of…but this guy seems pretty damn slick to me.

  6. chrisk61 - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    bizarre recent series of events by pens continue…

  7. phtjoey - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    Pens find their coach, which turns out wasn’t their man. That has to hurt, and it changes the dynamics. Did they interview John Hynes?

    “Hynes continues to build on an impressive resume that has seen him lead WBS to a 144-76-4-8 overall record, three Calder Cup playoff berths and the 2011 AHL regular-season championship, while also being named the 2011 AHL coach of the year. In his three years as head coach of the Penguins, Hynes has totaled the most wins in the AHL; most road wins (77) and twice his team led the league in defense (2010-12, 2012-13).”

    • c9castine - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:40 AM

      Clearly nobody else was the man because they didn’t get signed. Maybe he liked Desjardins philosophy but he wasn’t going to be able to hand pick his staff and get paid for 4 years.

      How does this” change the dynamic”?….since everybody here thinks they are Dr phil

    • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:10 AM

      He was interviewed. Never heard much about it, but going into the interview there were thought to be some concerns about Hynes’ coaching style and whether it would work. Also, remember that Hynes wasn’t promoted until Reirden was promoted to the NHL as an assistant coach….so now making Reirden Hynes’ Assistant brings an odd dynamic as well. Hynes is also a very young coach…think all you want on that and what it means.

      This guy doesn’t seem so bad to me:

  8. c9castine - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    Ok cool. Seems like a great coach…Now let’s get on with it.

  9. earpaniac - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    I’ve always wondered what it’s like when you are someone’s 3-4 choice. I know they are all professionals, but they are also human. No different than if it was your boss, and if things start to go bad, it’s only natural for that fact to creep into your head.

    • c9castine - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:43 AM

      First of all you don’t know that second he interviewed just the other day…after all the mustache Willie stuff went down.

      Obviously he wanted the job and.doesn’t pay attention to hockey bloggers like he should, eh?

  10. pdmjr - Jun 25, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    Reminds me of Bob Johnson, a guy with teaching ability, and enthusiasm.

  11. sjsblitz - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    Surprised they didnt take a shot at Ron Wilson

    • jpelle82 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:59 AM

      glad they didnt

  12. hockeydon10 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    The problem in the Pitt wasn’t just the coaching system. Bylsma certainly deserved criticism, but it’s really the cap that’s killing the Pens. Too much tied up into too few players leave little depth scoring to pick up the pace when their top guys are smothered.

    • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 11:38 AM

      That won’t get any better next year – so I’m hoping they make a move somehow. Crosby and Malkin aren’t going anywhere so they’re going to have to think it through on defense. Letang and Martin making $13M between the two of them needs fixed.

      I think they can get away with it on offense if they are using some up and comers on the third and fourth lines…but they aren’t.

    • Eutaw's Finest - Jun 25, 2014 at 12:52 PM

      And that all comes back to their ability to draft talent. If they were/are able to draft well, they would be able to let some of their expensive and high end talent guys walk (or trade if they can do so) and fill in with less expensive, younger, equally talented players. Unfortunately as the NHL goes, the draft is much more of a crap shoot than it is in sports like the NFL and NBA.

  13. ducksk - Jun 25, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    I’ll give you 10-1 odds tockett is asst. pun intended, oops, I said that 2 days ago

  14. ducksk - Jun 25, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    On May 25, 2007, Tocchet pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram announced on August 17, 2007 that Tocchet had been sentenced to two years probation in exchange for his plea. The NHL issued a statement from Gary Bettman, but his spokesman would not answer questions, including if Tocchet had a future in hockey.[9] During a press conference on February 6, 2008, it was announced that Tocchet was to be reinstated, and would serve as assistant coach the next day, exactly two years after taking a leave of absence.
    Hiring a head coach who doesn’t get to pick his asst. coaches is not a real sign of confidence. ie Mario’s buddy.

    • hockey412 - Jun 25, 2014 at 1:18 PM

      The guy is coming up from the WHL, getting a shot at a head coaching position in the NHL. Part of me agrees with what you are saying, but Tocchet has over 1100 games of experience in the NHL and Mario’s buddy or not, brings a lot to the table that may help Johnston, and more importantly the team as a whole.

    • bmscalise - Jun 25, 2014 at 1:30 PM

      Remember: he’ll get to pick one assistant. They clearly just thought Tocchet brought something valuable to balance out the staff – a guy who can be a hard-a** when needed but also help keep a right mentality in the room.

  15. cheeseheadbybirth - Jun 25, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    I’ve been watching him assemble and coach a Winterhawks team that has won the Western Conference championship four years in a row, including being Western Hockey League Champions in 2013-14. He’s very offensive minded but also picked Derrick Pouliot who just won the CHL Defenseman of the Year Award. Check out the Winterhawks’ press release:

  16. ducksk - Jun 25, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Birds of a feather?
    Johnston’s success in Portland did come with controversy and the back story will surely be mined in the early days of his Pittsburgh tenure. A WHL investigation unearthed alleged recruiting infractions such as extra flights for parents and giving the captain of the team a cell phone. Johnston was suspended for the second half of the 2012-13 campaign and the team lost a bunch of future draft selections. There was also a $200,000 fine levied. Some believe the investigation was a witch hunt orchestrated by the league’s old guard owners, who were sick of Portland and new owner Bill Gallacher winning so often.

    • cheeseheadbybirth - Jun 25, 2014 at 5:47 PM

      The violations were related to player benefits, not “recruiting” infractions. I.e. The Winterhawks provided flights to seven families over five years based on financial need and distance from Portland and gave their existing team captain a cell phone. None of this had to do with recruiting.

      Here is a summary of the league’s findings, and a statement from Johnston:

      The Winterhawks were found to have committed the following violations:

      • A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
      • Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
      • Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
      • The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons

      The WHL’s audit found no violations involving monetary payments made to players, their families or agents, or any violations related to the league’s educational packages.

      “After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” said Johnston.

      “We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions,” continued Johnston. “We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

      The penalties were extreme. Mike couldn’t be around his team for the second half of the season or the playoffs but the cool thing was they would still announce him as coach before each game and the fans would give him a standing ovation AND the Winterhawks used it as extra motivation to win for him and went on to win the Western Hockey League that year.

  17. ducksk - Jun 25, 2014 at 8:36 PM

    Cool. Good clarification. Agree it was excessive. But, rules are rules, laws are laws. Just sayin.

    • c9castine - Jun 26, 2014 at 11:23 AM

      Haha thanks Judge Duck.

      yes, rules are rules..

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