Mike Johnston Had Penguins Executing at a High Level

Mike Johnston Had Penguins Executing at a High Level
James A Conley

It’s April. The Pittsburgh Penguins are out of the postseason and fans are fondly recalling the days of Get to Our Game.

This is not how the first offseason of the Mike Johnston, Jim Rutherford and Co. era was supposed to play out, even if it was very likely to play out this way.

(For real though, it was really, really likely to play out this way, given the team’s cap troubles and dearth of useful amateur prospects.)

This year tied the shortest postseason of the Sidney Crosby era since the Pens were dispatched by the second-seeded Ottawa Senators in 2007. It was very nearly tied for the shortest total season of the Crosby era with an outright playoff miss, achieved only in his rookie year of 2005-06.

That’s what happens when four of your top-five defensemen hit injured reserve in the final weeks of the season. It is also, however, just about inexplicable that a team still fielding Crosby and whatever healthy limbs remained of Evgeni Malkin should need a Game 82 win over the Buffalo Sabres to keep the playoff streak alive.

All of that is enough fodder to stoke the offseason flames of, say, firing the coach.

If you want to dumb things down, put it this way: Dan Bylsma led the Penguins to 100 or more points and first-round home ice advantage in every full regular season that he was behind the bench for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mike Johnston, in his first year, watched the team back into the postseason with 98 points and a 4-9-3 record down the stretch. One win in five playoff games. Not even better than two goals per game in their first-round defeat to the top-seeded New York Rangers.

In doing all that, Johnston still replaced Bylsma in exactly every way that was clamored for when the Penguins completed their first goal-starved playoff loss to these Rangers in Spring 2014.

Firing Johnston, if it was ever a question — we’ll say it wasn’t a good one.

It certainly wasn’t on the mind of Rutherford and the rest of the Penguins’ brass. Team CEO David Morehouse cemented as much over the weekend, saying ““I know there’s been a lot of speculation out there, but (co-owners) Ron (Burkle) and Mario (Lemieux) never once considered a change,” according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Jim Rutherford’s our general manager, and Mike Johnston’s our coach.”

And, were it up to Rutherford to make that call, it wouldn’t be coming from his office, either.

From Rutherford, via the Penguins’ team website,

I think Mike did a really good job. He had really good communication with the players and based on my meetings with the players yesterday, I have that confirmed. I like to have exit meetings with the players apart from the coach so if they want to say something, they’re comfortable saying it.

That, really, is the key. The players seem to comfortable with Johnston, even if his demeanor doesn’t lend itself to a rah-rah on-camera persona that becomes as much a personality as any player on the roster.

Johnston’s hire wasn’t to meant replace the production Bylsma got out of his players. Perhaps better than any coach in the league during his tenure, Bylsma wrested 100 points and Art Ross Trophies in any given season out of rosters that were hit more squarely by injuries than any club in hockey.

Given the cap mess created by former GM Ray Shero, Johnston couldn’t be expected to create that kind of division title-winning production. Rather, he was there to improve upon the shortcomings Bylsma experienced in the postseason.

To be fair, this is a team that, again, experienced its shortest postseason run in nearly a decade. If Johnston got the team there despite injuries, he did so by the thinnest of margins and the Metropolitan, with a healthy Columbus, is only going to become more difficult to navigate next season.

However, it was those injures that were the key contributors to the Penguins’ postseason exit.

Not, for a change, an utter lack of discipline.

While the Penguins took 12 minor penalties in the first two games against the Rangers and 20 for the series, all of them were of a “hockey play” variety. Careless or not, the minors were born of competitive play. The Pens were assessed no majors, no misconducts and recorded no fights in these playoffs — a feat not once accomplished under Bylsma.

Penalized though they were in the regular season, the team simply continued to compete against an overwhelming opponent in the Rangers. Credit that to Johnston, who perhaps exercises a greater authority over this team than some would credit him for.

And, if keeping emotions in check was a big box to mark off the New Coach To-Do List, making adjustments might have been the biggest.

Bylsma, infamously, refused to adjust his stretch-pass offense to opponents that had for years figured out how to bottle it up. As much as any Marc-Andre Fleury meltdown or superstar goal drought, the Penguins stuck to their game — even if they rarely got to it.

Johnston’s series against the Rangers didn’t produce more than one win. It didn’t even produce more than two goals per game. But it certainly didn’t produce questions about the gameplan.

Pittsburgh played the Rangers about as well as you would want an eighth-seed to play a healthier, faster opponent. New York thrives on its breakout — the Penguins bottled up the neutral zone at the expense of their own transition offense. Pittsburgh’s remaining defensemen were too offensively inept to effectively play the puck-support game that Johnston favors — so the offense became one of dump-and-chase and numerical superiority around the opposing net.

The Penguins of the last half decade fell out of the playoffs because they hung on the perimeter of the offensive zone. This year’s team didn’t have the horses on defense to do anything but get the puck into the offensive zone and pray for chaos around Henrik Lundqvist.

One year and a cobbled-together lineup under Johnston later, and opposing coaches are lamenting the beating that their goalie takes.

For real. Via the New York Post,

“I pointed it out, what else can I do,” coach Alain Vigneault said with an exasperated wave of the hand.

After Game 1 when the Penguins crashed the net hard and banged into Lundqvist, Vigneault made a point of saying he hoped the officials make those interference calls. But they kept coming in Game 2, and in Game 3 Lundqvist took separate hits from Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby.

“They do move the puck side to side a lot, so it’s better for me to stay patient and stay deep,” said Lundqvist, who was terrific in making 23 saves, 12 in the third period. “The way they’re crashing the net right now — and I’m pretty deep in the net — but this time of year, you have to expect that, for them to come hard. I have to be ready for that.”

These are things that successful playoff teams accomplish in today’s NHL. The Penguins executed these strategies under Johnston, their losses coming due not to scheme but to the bad luck of having no serviceable personnel on the back end.

Bylsma often got 100-plus points out of ravaged rosters, but only in 2011 did his team hit the postseason with as many key injuries as this year’s club. That team, too, bowed out in the first round.

Johnston, even if in a year marked by outlandish injuries, got the most out of the roster given him in the postseason — the sole reason his predecessor is collecting a paycheck from home.

Imagine what he might get out of a club resembling its healthiest self.


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James A Conley

James is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His work also appears at Pensburgh, ThePensNation, Sports and Shnarped. Shower him with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.

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