Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason Grades: Assessing Mike Johnston’s First Season


If ever there was a job opening that guaranteed the highest possible expectations you could imagine, it’s taking over as Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is exactly the situation that former Portland Winterhawks Head Coach Mike Johnston found himself in.

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After their fifth playoff disappointment under Head Coach Dan Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins had to make some changes. No matter what your feelings were about Bylsma’s ability or coaching style, and despite a ton of regular season success, this team is expected to win Stanley Cups.

When the offseason began last summer, it was somewhat guaranteed in everyone’s eyes that Bylsma would be fired. The unexpected twist was that General Manager Ray Shero was ousted first, paving way for Jim Rutherford to take over.

When Rutherford hired Mike Johnston it was a surprising turn of events. An inexperienced coach tasked with leading a team of superstars to a Stanley Cup. He was expected to step in and recognize success immediately. And in a way, he did.

Mike Johnston’s Pittsburgh Penguins came out of the gate flying. His puck possession, up-tempo system seemed to fit the roster built by Rutherford perfectly. I predicted growing pains, and I was very wrong. Well, until January 2015.

The Pens closed out 2014 with a win on New Year’s Eve over the Carolina Hurricanes, improving their record to 23-9-5. But, as injuries struck in December, some of them season-ending, Mike Johnston seemed to lose his way.

With a depleted lineup, the rookie NHL Head Coach pulled back, and began playing dump and chase hockey with a roster not necessarily built to do so. I encountered a lot of fans that were under the impression that Johnston didn’t adjust. But, that’s simply incorrect. He actually adjusted a lot, but not effectively.

I also encountered a number of fans that cited Dan Bylsma’s success through injuries over the past few seasons. And, while it’s true that he maintained Pittsburgh’s winning ways despite having lost more man games than any other team, you can’t credit only Bylsma. Remember, John Hynes ran the exact same system with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins as the big club. When players were called up due to injuries they didn’t have to change their game much, if at all.

Assessing Mike Johnston’s first year with the Pittsburgh Penguins is tough. In fairness to him, he wasn’t really given much of a chance to succeed considering the players he lost to injury. On the flip side, he showed a few traits that I think are crucial to this team’s success.

First, his calmness, while viewed as a weakness by most is something that impressed me. He always remained calm and collected, and eventually that started bleeding into the roster.

The New York Rangers series was a perfect example of this. The Pittsburgh Penguins of old would have lost their cool when the Rangers picked up their physical play and seemed to be getting a lot of favorable calls by the officials. They also pulled out two close games in OT, which would normally frustrate the Pens to the point of implosion.

But, they didn’t implode. They didn’t get frustrated. They played pretty well considering their situation.

For my overall grade, I’ll give Johnston a C+. When all was said and done, he was very average, and showed the potential to be really good early on. It’s assumed that Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will be ready for camp next season. And, while it’s no guarantee, there’s a chance Pascal Dupuis returns as well.  With key guys back in the lineup and a year of coaching in the NHL under his belt, there’s no more room for excuses.

With a few solid free agent or trade acquisitions this summer the Pittsburgh Penguins can be true contenders. Mike Johnston deserves a fair chance at proving himself.