Mike Johnston vs. Dan Bylsma: Whose Pens Were Best?


As last year’s Pittsburgh Penguins‘ playoff dreams ended after blowing a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers, the entire NHL knew that heads were gonna roll.  Dan Bylsma had not just lost his way, he had lost the locker room.  Former general manager Ray Shero had overseen one too many blown chances.

But from a systemic view, what has changed on the ice? What departures have new head coach Mike Johnston taken from Dan Bylsma’s system?  From what I can tell, there are two clear differences:

A Willingness to Adapt

As the Pittsburgh Penguins’ head coach, Dan Bylsma aimed for consistency.  The man lived and died by it.  When he was able to keep a healthy lineup, he would set his lines and stick with them.  While this might have provided the players with a sense of comfort that they knew who they would be playing with on any given night, the same could be said for the Penguins’ opponents.

Dan Bylsma was a believer in the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  The problem was, he wasn’t great at recognizing when things were “broke.”  Coach Johnston has been a stark contrast to Bylsma in terms of this approach, frequently moving players up and down the lineup, as evidenced by Chris Kunitz‘ shuffling throughout the top three lines.

Johnston is an improvement in this regard.

Possession Instead of Stretch Plays

The other key difference between Coach Bylsma and Coach Johnston is where they emphasized speed. Under Coach Bylsma, the focus was on moving the puck quickly.  This was evident in Bylsma’s heavy use of the stretch pass, which moves the puck up the ice quickly in the hopes of setting up highly talented players like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin with a chance to make a play.  Stretch passes do just that; they “stretch” the opposing team.  However, under Coach Bylsma, the tendency was to turn the puck over, which oftentimes ended with the biscuit in the wrong basket.

Under Coach Johnston, the focus is on foot speed.  That applies whether the player has the puck or not.  What this does is it creates options.  It also allows players to move the puck quickly, only they move it themselves, which lends itself to a puck possession game.  This system has the advantage of being more defensively sound and permitting the team using it to control the tempo of the game.  Under Dan Bylsma, tempo was usually dictated by the opponent.


Professional sports are all about “what have you done for me lately?”  It can be hard to see the good and zoom out when a team is performing the way the Penguins have over recent weeks.  However, when you take a step back, and you look at the differences between the Penguins under Dan Bylsma and the Penguins under Coach Johnston, the improvement under Mike Johnston is pretty clear.

This season, the Penguins are more responsible defensively.  It doesn’t just show on the ice – the players mention it in interviews.  The focus is on playing a complete game, which fits perfectly with the possession game Johnston has put in place.

Look back to the first few weeks of the season, and compare that to the best stretches under Dan Bylsma, and you will see the same high-powered offense.

Under Johnston, however, you will see accountability on the back end.

Once the Penguins get healthy again, the benefits of the new system will make their presence known.