Crosby Has His Baton Again; Updated: Mike Johnston Expected as Next Pens Coach

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

Some awards, a little free agency, and an end to the coaching search.

Crosby Isn’t a Complete Loser

Despite the media debate about the new “best player in the world” every week of the playoffs, Sidney Crosby reminded us that he is, in fact, the best player in the world. He showed it off from start to finish in an impressive regular season run and the voters noticed before losing their minds in the playoffs.

Even though Crosby did struggle to score in the playoffs, we should all certainly remember his dominance preceding it. We’re a lucky and spoiled bunch.

Here is how Crosby finished on awards night:

  • Art Ross Trophy (most points) – Winner (second time) with 104 points in the regular season. The next player on the list was Ryan Getzlaf with 87 points.
  • Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) – Winner (third time). Votes are not disclosed, though PK Subban said he voted for him!
  • Frank J. Selke Trophy (top defensive forward) – 18th place with 8 tallies. Crosby received 2 fourth place votes and 2 fifth place votes.
  • Hart Trophy (league MVP) – Winner (second time) with 1341 tallies. Crosby received 128 of 137 first place votes, 8 second place votes, and 1 third place vote.
  • Crosby was also named a First Team All-Star.

Other (sometimes former) Penguins on awards night:

  • Calder Trophy (top rookie) – Olli Maatta finished 5th with 225 tallies. He received 11 second place votes, 18 third place votes, 16 fourth place votes, and 10 fifth place votes.
  • Norris Trophy (best defenseman) – Matt Niskanen finished 11th with 36 tallies. He received 1 second place vote, 2 third place votes, 5 fourth place votes, and 4 fifth place votes.
  • Jack Adams Award (best coach) – Dan Bylsma finished 11th with 4 tallies. He finished with 4 third place votes.

The full list of votes can be found at SBNation and the All-Star Teams at NHL.com. If you want more Crosby talk, he discussed the state of the franchise with Pierre LeBrun and his trophy wins in an article by W.G. Ramirez.

Free Agency Updates

Since today is June 25th, all upcoming free agents are now allowed to talk with all teams to discuss the “parameters” of potential contracts. With that being the case, I would expect the Pens to hire a coach very soon before they start losing ground on the league.

Here is what we know so far about how the Pens are treating their own free agents:

  • From Dave Molinari of the PG: All five RFAs will receive qualifying offers. That group includes Brandon Sutter, Jayson Megna, Bobby Farnham, Philip Samuelsson, and Simon Despres.
  • From Rob Rossi of the Trib: Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen (in particular!) will likely not be re-signed. Rutherford declined to comment on Brooks Orpik.
  • More from Dave Molinari: Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, and Deryk Engelland have not been engaged in any contract talks this summer with the Penguins.
  • Finally from Molinari: Rutherford said he isn’t close to re-signing any of his impending free agents yet.

Now on to the coaching rumors…

Mike Johnston vs. Ron Wilson??  Just Johnston Now.

UPDATED: SKIP THE WILSON STUFF APPARENTLY

Here is a copy/paste of my write-up on Johnston from earlier this week with more thoughts afterwards.

Mike Johnston (Age: 57), Head Coach – Portland Winterhawks

Johnston has a long history of coaching. He played college hockey and then moved into coaching at the age of 23. He was a college assistant coach for several years and then took over as the head coach at the University of New Brunswick for five years.

From there, he moved on to become the GM and associate coach of Team Canada. He was one of Marc Crawford’s assistants in the Nagano games in 1998, which as I discussed last week, was seen as a significant disappointment for Crawford and his staff. After his stint with Team Canada, Johnston moved on to become an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks under Crawford from 1999-2006 and “played a major role in the team’s development”. When Crawford was fired by Vancouver and hired by LA, Johnston joined him for the ride. Johnston was then let go when Crawford was fired after just two years in LA.

Johnston finally split from Crawford after their time with the Kings, moving on to the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL as the general manager and head coach.

Johnston’s approach has been focused on drafting players of a certain type — he instructs scouts to evaluate players based on speed, skill, intelligence and competitive instincts — and developing those players.

It’s a plan rooted in patience, staying with it, top to bottom.

“We’re like Edmonton (Oil Kings), we’re similar in our philosophy. If you look at Edmonton, how many trades Edmonton makes versus how they hang onto their own players (Portland is similar). We’ve gone through the last few years and as far as draft or list players, there are only one or two that aren’t our players, every year.

“We try to develop our guys and work with our guys. I’m not a big fan of shipping out a 17-year-old kid because he’s struggling. We try and stick with them and see if we can bring them along.”

Since Johnston took over in Portland, the entire franchise has turned around completely. After three straight years of missing the playoffs, the Winterhawks have made the playoffs in five straight seasons. In the last four years, his team has made the final every year, though they have only won one championship in four tries (and then lost the Memorial Cup final).

About that suspension talk though…

In 2012, Johnston was suspended for the majority of the season, while Portland was fined $200,000 and lost first round draft picks through 2017. The key question is – why?

The team 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 two-to-four 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 cellphone for their team captain for a period of three seasons.

Mike Johnston is not a bad person, but he and his organization didn’t follow the necessary guidelines. He didn’t let the transgression get him down though.

“I tried to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t do, and I could still evaluate older players or our team for the future, and I could evaluate players who were on our list and determine if they were ready to fit into our program or were a ways away,” he said from Portland in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t watch our team, but I could watch the other Western league teams.”

Johnston watched games online and also ventured to numerous rinks to scout Winterhawk hopefuls playing at lower levels. He also attended major coaching clinics in Burnaby, B.C., where he was a speaker and attended sessions to get insight on his profession.

“Any time you’re not coaching, like summer hockey, I always try and see if there’s some way I can improve and try and study what other teams are doing, what other coaches are doing, take a look at our team, the organization, to see if there’s any way to get an edge, to improve in what you’re doing from that perspective,” he said.

As Portland continues to move on without some picks, Johnston has kept his team successful. He has kept himself successful too, drawing interest from multiple NHL teams and interviewing with Vancouver for their recently-filled coaching vacancy.

Canucks GM Jim Benning had this to say about the interview:

“He has done an excellent job the last five years with Portland,” said Benning, who has an off-season home in the Portland area. “They play an up-tempo, skilled game and he has a history with the Canucks and the organization, so he understands the market. He is going to be a candidate. . .He coaches the style we want our team to play. The interview went well.”

Of course, Johnston wasn’t hired though. Now he is a candidate for the Penguins opening, the last one available.

Sidenote: He also co-authored the book “Hockey Plays and Strategies” for whatever that may be worth. It has 17 reviews on Amazon, all four and five stars!

Original Thoughts: Given that the NHL and WHL environment are quite different (and the Penguins have 90 GMs), the suspension and sanctions do not faze me. The Penguins are familiar with his work, having former Winterhawk Derrick Pouliot in the system. They are also familiar with trading away his work, as Joe Morrow is also a former Winterhawk. He sounds like the type of coach that could probably bring the younger skilled players along, but I have my doubts on his ability to take over a team that is in its prime, if not heading past its prime. His ties to Crawford don’t help out my impression either. Johnston would be low on my candidates list; he strikes me as a better candidate for a young, impressionable team. The Penguins are far from that right now.

More on Mike Johnston

There’s more to add to Johnston’s story. Give credit to Dave Molinari for finding this page on the Portland Winterhawks website where Johnston shares part of his coaching philosophy, “Developing an Offensive Game Plan.”

SIX KEYS TO OFFENSIVE SUCCESS

1. Be a First Pass Team

• Defense needs to look for the smart play
• Allow passes to the front of the net or through the middle
• Discourage the “dump out” or “no look rim” style of play
• Safe plays stifle creativity
• An area pass is still a direct pass…utilize bank passes off the boards and laying pucks into open spaces for teammates to skate into
• The players away from the puck have a responsibility to get their stick open and available for direct passes…(much like a receiver in football)
• Use of deception “look away” to have more time to make a play
• Practice transition off the back check and their rush chances

2. Shoot the Puck and Drive the Net

• Sounds simple but volume of shots are key
• Check the shot totals of the top scorers in the NHL…and also shots that miss the net or are blocked per game…the puck must get through
• Defensive coverage often breaks down after a shot
• Net drives off the puck create a play at the net but also openings in the slot. First two players away from the puck must drive the net with no hesitation…(unless the puck carrier has the wide lane deep)
• The first drive should be through the mid lane
• Funnel shots and players to the net

3. Activate Your Defense into the Attack

• Encourage them to join and stay in the rush from the breakout… supporting the mid or wide lane up the ice.
• Often the net D will have an opportunity to move up ice before the low forward in defensive zone coverage.
• Make the attack an odd number by their blueline
• Responsibility is in the hands of the puckcarrier…don’t blame the defence for creating options
• Go after chips or dump in’s when they have the speed

4. Stretch Out the Offensive Zone

• Get the puck to the back of the net on the cycle and work plays from there… stressing their coverage
• On shots off the rush move the puck low/high right away and catch them over backchecking
• On low scrambles move the puck back to the point quickly and catch the team collapsing
• Players and coaches underestimate the danger of point shots

5. Cycle With a Purpose

• Challenge their ability to contain by driving the seams and going to the net with the puck
• Set picks and screens to open up ice for the puckcarier
• Work the overload…once the puck is passed back to the corner that player needs to get into an overload position ready to shoot
• Defence support the backside…strongside slide…or mid ice seam… practice plays involving the defence on the cycle

6. Work Set Plays

• Have set faceoff plays for each zone which will create an offensive advantage. Your centers should take responsibility for every set up… remember you can win by losing
• Control breakouts vs. low trap…work options off a set pattern
• PP stretch breakout… which has the ability to score on the rush
• Regroups geared to beat the trap and hit their blue line with speed

More on Ron Wilson (no longer mattering, skip to Final Thoughts)

Given that we have some of Mike Johnston’s philosophies to work with, I set out to find more on Ron Wilson’s philosophies. First, I found a funny Down Goes Brown article that’s worth a look just for laughs. On a legitimate note though, I found a three-part series by the Pension Plan Puppets that was done when Toronto hired Wilson. They interviewed writers from three San Jose blogs (Wilson’s former team) to get an idea on him. I will copy/paste pieces, but I suggest you read the full interviews.

Part I was with Mike Chen of Battle of California:

1. What was your overall impression of Ron Wilson’s time as the Sharks’ coach? The media consensus in Toronto has quickly become that he was a coach that had a super talented team but wasn’t able to get them to perform. Is that a fair assessment?

I think the thing with Wilson, and Caps fans will probably tell you the same thing, is that he’s a combination of innovation and attitude that has a relatively short life span. In his first full season with the Sharks, he got a Joe Thornton-less team to buy into a hard-skating puck-possession game that went to the Conference Finals. The problem is the attitude. While Wilson is a great quote for the media, he’s also got a really snarky personality that sometimes makes him seem like a player’s coach and sometimes makes him seem like a big jerk. I got the sense that this confused players, especially some of the younger ones, and made them basically walk on eggshells. He’s really smart, but sometimes I wonder how much of what he says is calculated and how much is just his ego spitting out sarcasm.

Tactically, he’s pretty damn smart and he’s not afraid to change things drastically. The problem with him is that he’s also really stubborn, and if he believes that something will work, he will stick with it even when it’s fairly clear that it isn’t and won’t work. So his effectiveness is kind of like a bell curve that’s been significantly pushed to the left.

Parting Shots
Oh, one more thing to note. Every coach obviously has a shelf life, and while I may seem pretty harsh on Wilson, I do think he’s a good coach, just not a flawless coach. I think his shelf life is accelerated because of his attitude, though, and unless he changes his prickly personality, you’ll see higher peaks and frustrating lows probably faster than other coaches.

Part II was with Jason Plank of We Bleed Teel:

1. What was your overall impression of Ron Wilson’s time as the Sharks’ coach? The media consensus in Toronto has quickly become that he was a coach that had a super talented team but wasn’t able to get them to perform. Is that a fair assessment?

I’m going to start this off by saying that although I agree with the Sharks firing Wilson, that does not mean he is not a good coach. He just wasn’t right for San Jose anymore. In fact we (San Jose) will be hard-pressed to find someone as capable as Wilson for next season. As for the Toronto media, their assessment is correct, but only to a point. The Sharks are a very talented team, but to label Wilson as the main reason as to why we could not advance to the Finals is short-sighted. There was definitely other factors at work here- some of our players (cough, Joe Thornton, cough) have had a rap sheet of being unable to dominate in the postseason. But that’s a whole other ballgame that I doubt you guys want to hear. You’ve heard enough sob stories up there in Toronto (yes, that was a low blow, I’m just kidding. Well, half kidding. But I digress.)

Looking at Wilson’s career stats, you see a different story than the media might paint- he’s ninth in all time coaching wins, did an excellent job of winning a deep Pacific division twice (with two second place finishes as well), won his five hundredth game as an NHL coach this year, and is the Sharks all-time leader for coaching wins. The man knows how to coach. Another quality about Wilson that I really liked was his use of technology to make adjustments in the middle of games. He was one of the first (that I am aware of) to use a laptop in games in order to give his teams a better chance to win. His innovation will pay off dividends in Toronto.

The whole reason Wilson was relieved of his duties in San Jose was not because he is a subpar coach, but because three straight second round exits were a huge disappointment for all involved. The goal of getting deep in the postseason was not met. Coaches have a shelf life in the NHL. I wrote a satirical piece about it. It explains why the firing of Ron Wilson made sense from a Sharks’ standpoint, but concedes that he is an excellent coach who will do well wherever he ends up.

Finally, Part III was with Fear The Fin:

1. What was your overall impression of Ron Wilson’s time as the Sharks’ coach? The media consensus in Toronto has quickly become that he was a coach that had a super talented team but wasn’t able to get them to perform. Is that a fair assessment?

Perhaps I’m jaded from seeing them eighty times a year, but I’m not altogether convinced the Sharks are that talented of a team. Yes, they have Joe Thornton who is magic during the regular season, and a good stock of quality players (Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Evgeni Nabokov, etc). But the constant turtling in the playoffs… ah well.

To answer the question, the media consensus is also Doug Wilson’s consensus in that he believes the team is far better than the post-season results have shown.

My overall impression is Wilson was very good for the team when things were going well, but when it mattered was unable to get the team where it needed to be as far as competing.

Philosophically, there was a quick blurb as the 2010 US Olympic team was being chosen:

“We want to be an aggressive forechecking team that’s on the attack all the time. We don’t want to give up possession of the puck, and when we don’t have it we want to get it back as quickly as possible,” said Wilson.

And also a comparison to Brian Burke’s strategy from Toronto+Sports blog:

Wilson loves the up-tempo, high pressure fore-check system, one that values solid speedy skaters and an endless motor.  Burke also values the pressure style, but with a difference, he wants his skaters to be able to paste the defensemen into the end boards.  Wilson wants three lines of skill, speed and scoring ability, I am sure he would love to have more size than the Leafs current roster provides and that is how the Leafs finally started to play better hockey, rolling three lines and basically letting the “sandpaper” out of the cage when needed.

Final Thoughts: Johnston vs. Wilson

Ron Wilson is a relatively well-known quantity. By all accounts, he values the ideas of puck possession, quickness, and aggressive forechecking very highly. By all accounts, his style also appears to come with a shelf life that lasts maybe 4-5 years AT MOST. He has had some talented teams and some teams with massive flaws. His talented teams never won a Stanley Cup and his teams with massive flaws never seemed to do as poorly as they should have. He seems to do quite well when first introduced as a coach though and turns things around quickly (before they inevitably go awry). He has never taken over a team that has the talent the Penguins have. Can his usual immediate boost + a few of the right roster moves get this team back into Cup-favorite status right away before he fizzles out quicker than desired? Is that the perfect solution for Rutherford’s “temporary” tenure? Will his style harm the younger defensemen that the Penguins will have to rely on coming up?

Mike Johnston is more of an unknown quantity. He joined Marc Crawford as an assistant as the two failed to meet expectations in several situations together, but Crawford was always the head coach. His offensive style appears to be very promising and could work well with the high-end talent of the Penguins. His experience with young players should also be a huge development boost for the kids that the Penguins have not brought along properly yet. Johnston seems like the type of coach that could stay for a while, but it is difficult to judge his ceiling and his floor. Odds are, he has a bigger potential variance than Wilson in the short-run.

In the end, neither candidate is a slam dunk and there are arguments to be made for both. I believe Johnston has better long-run potential, though he could fail just as easily in the first season or two. Meanwhile, I think Wilson has better short-run potential, but is not a long-term solution (long-term being past Rutherford’s tenure probably).

Thus, my vote (which doesn’t matter whatsoever) would have gone to Wilson. It ends up being predicated on the age of several key Penguins. Crosby at the age of 26 and Malkin at 27 are theoretically in the primes of their careers. Add in Neal at 26 as well. Letang at 27 should be entering the prime of his career. Paul Martin at 33 will be trending down sooner than later (though his style of play suggests a slow trend down). Chris Kunitz at 34 and Pascal Dupuis at 35 will also be trending down, most likely at a quicker pace. Offseason moves notwithstanding, the key parts of this team are meant to win soon/now. In my humble, personal opinion, I think Ron Wilson gives this team a better chance to win immediately than Mike Johnston. Of course, the roster needs to be improved either way for either coach.

If you think Mike Johnston is the right guy, I won’t argue fervently against you. It’s quite possible. Just don’t give me the “retread” argument. The most successful coaches recently (Sutter, Vigneault, Julien, Quenneville) all failed elsewhere, earning the “retread” label to some degree. Really, it’s just hard to say that either of these options is exciting.

Best of luck to Johnston, I hope this ends well!!

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Thanks for reading!!