Assessing Head Coach Mike Johnston’s Tenure So Far


The Pittsburgh Penguins underwent a myriad of changes this past summer.

Perhaps the most significant, however, was the removal of Dan Bylsma as head coach, alongside Ray Shero dismissal from his position as General Manager.

For a club as annually successful as the Pens, sweeping front office changes were certainly an expected move. Yet there were wasn’t much surprise from the hockey community as the move spoke to the immense expectations of the Penguins’ ownership – headed off by a former champion in his own right, Mario Lemieux.

But Bylsma wasn’t just any coach. He was a guy that came in when the Pens were floundering and brought them back to life – getting them not only back on their feet, but all the way to a championship. He would go on to become one of the most successful, respected, and well-liked coaches in club history.

That being the case, all eyes were on Pittsburgh’s ownership group when it came time to select a new General Manager and Coach.

Through the quarter-mark of the season, new bench boss Mike Johnston seems to have been an excellent choice.

Touted for his intelligence in terms of the system he implements, and for his impressive ability to adapt on the fly, Johnston has delivered on both fronts thus far.

Pittsburgh has not looked perfect, but at times they’ve looked pretty close – and regardless they sit tied for the Metropolitan Division lead while all their stars consistently put up excellent play.

Johnston’s fresh outlook was made most evident this past week, however.

With the team’s dominant play faltering, the first-year NHL head coach decided to shake up the lines. While it’s not a practice foreign to any coach, it was one specific move by Johnston that stood out – his decision to split up Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.

The Crosby-Kunitz tandem has been one hockey fans have become all too used to as the two have spent very little time apart since Kunitz came over to Pittsburgh in a trade with his former club, the Anaheim Ducks.

Seemingly, the only time Kunitz wasn’t on Crosby’s wing was when the Pens captain was out of the lineup with injury, during which time the feisty Kunitz thrived alongside Evgeni Malkin.

With Crosby fully heathly, however, he was reunited with his old linemate and the two continued to light it up. Even Team Canada kept the tandem intact, bringing both to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock elected to keep the two together all tournament long, even as the offence didn’t come as freely as they had hoped.

But Johnston was not intimidated by any of this.

He simply knew a change needed to be made and when enacting one, elected to treat all of his players equally – keeping the third line trio together only because their play had earned it. No one was given preference due to history or the way things have come to be known.

And the move worked. Crosby and Patric Hornqvist are thriving again on the first line, while Kunitz, Malkin, and Blake Comeau have been wreaking havoc on the second.

While it’s a small brick in an endless wall that will make up Johnston’s coaching career in Pittsburgh, the move represents the kind of coaching that Pens fans can come to expect – strong-willed, undaunted, and unbiased.

Mike Johnston is only in it to do things the right way and get the right results, and through the 22 games the team has played thus far, he seems to be doing an excellent job.

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