Mike Johnston Added to Pens Coaching Candidates; Free Agency/Draft Updates

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

Hopefully everyone recharged for the crazy week ahead.  Add Mike Johnston to the list of potential coaches now, as reported by Darren Dreger this morning.

The first page of Google results for Mike Johnston is not a happy place, highlighted by articles regarding his suspension from the WHL. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Mike Johnston (Born in 1957), GM and 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!

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.

Moving on…

More Coaching Notes

Meanwhile, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts post had several notes about the Penguins. Let’s go one by one:

24. So, what happened in Pittsburgh? There is zero doubt the Penguins were going to hire Peters or Willie Desjardins. They were the top two on the list. When Carolina snapped up Peters, Desjardins was the guy. Desjardins can answer this better than anyone else, but in the end I think his heart was in Vancouver.

Okay, so the Penguins lost their top two, but maybe they never had a chance at their top two.

25. He’s from Western Canada and has the Medicine Hat connection with Trevor Linden. But do not underestimate the place of Doug Lidster in all this. Lidster — who worked alongside Desjardins in AHL Texas — is very tight with Linden and also will be joining Vancouver. If Linden and Desjardins had any doubt about each other, Lidster would have erased it. If Desjardins wouldn’t be able to take Lidster with him to Pittsburgh, as it was reported, that would have been a problem. (For the record, another Penguins candidate said he was not told about any restrictions on assistants. That source is not Peters, who is quoted above.)

Friedman mentions that another candidate was not told about any restrictions on assistants. All of Pittsburgh seems to be reporting that Rick Tocchet is going to be an assistant. There were some reports that the Penguins weren’t going to let Desjardins pick his assistants. My initial thought is that this unnamed candidate probably didn’t make it far enough into negotiations since he wasn’t top two (Peters or Desjardins). Either way, there is a level of uncertainty with the control that the next Penguins coach will have.

26. The Canucks were supposed to interview Scott Arniel on Monday and Desjardins on Tuesday. They changed the schedule. Pittsburgh brought Desjardins into town last Thursday, met with him and, word is, were ready to offer him the job Friday morning. I’d like to see Linden’s phone records from Thursday night. Whatever the case, someone from Vancouver made a pre-emptive strike, making sure it was all but done before Pittsburgh could close.

This gives me the impression that the Canucks expected Peters to go to Pittsburgh, allowing them to relax their timeline on Desjardins and their coaching search. As soon as that domino fell, the Canucks pounced and did whatever they needed to do to make sure they would not be left scrambling.

27. The Penguins are unlikely to promote their AHL coach, John Hynes. If Peters and Desjardins were the choices, is that good news for Todd Nelson? Very similar resume. Another new interviewee will be Mike Johnston, who coaches at WHL Portland and was on Vancouver’s list.

Unfortunately for Hynes, it seems like NHL experience is very important to the group of GMs. Johnston is profiled above. I’ll wait on Nelson until we hear more.

28. Penguins fans are looking at this and saying, “What the heck? Does no one want to coach Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?” It’s a great question and one we are all asking. The number one answer: It hasn’t been a lot of fun there. Ownership and the team’s CEO, David Morehouse, are taking most of the heat, but that’s not a true picture, because it extended onto the bench and in the dressing room. The demands, the pressure and the disappointment took its toll on a lot of people. No one likes to lose, but things used to be joyous there. That must be re-discovered. It also reveals what a great job Ray Shero did preventing all of this from going public while he was in charge.

A while back, a commenter here called Shero’s work a house of mirrors with his drafting and trading history. Perhaps his house of mirrors went well beyond that and into the depths of the atmosphere and reputation of the Penguins. Jim Rutherford has always been very open with the media. We’re quickly learning that being open with the media doesn’t provide favorable press for this team. It’s quite a change going from stealing Iginla in the middle of the night to watching coaching candidates openly stolen away.

29. One other Pittsburgh note: hearing Kris Letang will not be traded, barring a ridiculous offer.

This was probably a safe assumption already. I’m very excited to see what Letang and Martin could do together, assuming there is ever a new coach and he wants to play Martin and Letang together.

30. OK, one more. Assistant coach Todd Reirden, responsible for defence and given permission to look for other work, may end up in Washington alongside Barry Trotz.

I didn’t expect Reirden to be retained either way. But…good riddance.

Shelly Anderson of the PG confirms the Hynes news.

Free Agency Notes

Finally, Craig Custance of ESPN released an article discussing free agency (for insiders only). Here are his Penguins notes:

5. Matt Niskanen | D | Pittsburgh Penguins

If Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were still the GM and coach of the Penguins, there’d be a pretty good chance Niskanen might have had a deal done with Pittsburgh by now. He thrived under Bylsma and loves the city. The last part hasn’t changed.

“Matt loves Pittsburgh, but with changes going on he wants to see what the changes are,” said Niskanen’s agent Neil Sheehy.

Niskanen didn’t have the best experience during the regime change in Dallas, where he went from Dave Tippett to Marc Crawford, so he’s very aware of how things can change drastically under new leadership. GM Jim Rutherford is expected to connect with Niskanen’s camp within 24 hours of a head coach hire to try to work out a deal. One wild card will be watching where Bylsma ends up. Niskanen worked well with the coach and would be open to following him to his next destination if there’s a need on defense.

14. Jussi Jokinen | LW | Pittsburgh Penguins

Like Niskanen, it was unrealistic to expect Jokinen to sign until all the dust had settled on the hires with the Penguins.

“We’re talking,” said his agent Todd Diamond when asked to assess where things stood with the Penguins.

Jokinen was healthy during the last offseason, which helped him prepare for the 2013-14 campaign, his best since 2009-10. He finished with 21 goals in 81 games and was one of Pittsburgh’s most consistent producers in the playoffs, with 10 points in 13 games. His versatility is a big plus.

Add Josh Yohe’s afternoon update to that:

Rutherford said on Monday that unrestricted free agents Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen, in particular, will likely play elsewhere next season.

Niskanen and Jokinen increased their respective values by having excellent 2013-14 seasons.

“I’ve talked with them,” Rutherford said. “I think both players would like to return. But they’re also coming off good years. It’s time for them to hit free agency and get their big contracts. With that being said, we’ll see what happens leading up to free agency.”

Rutherford declined to comment on defenseman Brooks Orpik, another unrestricted free agent.

On another note from Yohe, Rutherford doesn’t appear to be keen on actually drafting anyone.

Rutherford said the Penguins are willing to trade their first-round selection — the 22nd overall pick — in return for a player who can help them win in the short term.

“We will trade that pick if it can help us get a player who can help us immediately,” Rutherford said.
The Penguins do not have selections in the second or third rounds of this draft because of previous trades involving defenseman Douglas Murray and right wing Lee Stempniak.

It doesn’t sound likely that they will jump into those rounds.

“Of course I’d be interested in adding picks,” Rutherford said. “You’re always interested in adding picks. But I don’t think it’s reasonable at this point. I’m not going to move a player out of the organization who can help us right now just to get more picks.”

Oh. Um.  *blank stare*

Niskanen and Jokinen’s rights should be shopped for just about anything, even a 7th round pick.  Trading early round picks is one of the reasons the Penguins landed in depth-chart hell (does a 3-year GM really care about that though?)  Also, the Jokinen part makes me laugh.  “Jokinen, in particular.”  Shocking, there’s no interest in a guy Rutherford had to give away for nothing before. This summer is truly silly season for the Penguins with the new level of transparency in the organization. That being said, if Rutherford gets a long-term top-six winger for that 1st round pick, we will all quiet down quickly.


Gerard Gallant (Florida) and Willie Desjardins (Vancouver) were officially introduced as head coaches.

Dominik Hasek, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg, Mike Modano, Pat Burns, and Bill McCreary all made the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Philadelphia traded Scott Hartnell to Columbus for RJ Umberger and a 4th round pick. Columbus gets more annoying. Philadelphia gets worse. Hartnell had an EXTREMELY quotable conference call this afternoon.  The Flyers also re-signed Brayden Schenn to a two-year deal worth $5 million total. Now that’s a good deal.

Andrei Markov signed a three-year extension worth $5.75 million/yr. (Related: Matt Niskanen is likely looking into building a money bin to swim in.)


Thanks for reading!!