The Penguins have officially hired former Portland Winterhawks coach/general manager Mike Johnston to serve as the 21st head coach in franchise history.
Additionally, the team has hired former Penguins power forward Rick Tocchet as an assistant coach. Tocchet, 50, spent parts of three seasons with the Penguins in the early 1990s and was a member of the 1992 Stanley Cup team. Tocchet, 50, served as head coach of the Lightning for parts of two seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and compiled a record of 53-69-26. He has also served as an assistant coach with the Avalanche, Coyotes and Lightning.
The team also announced the firings of assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden. Assistant coach Jacques Martin will be retained in a yet to be determined capacity. Assistant coaches Mike Bales (goaltending) and Andy Saucier (video) have been retained.
EN Says: Given Johnston's lack of head coaching experience at the NHL level and the fact he's been officially employed all of two hours as of the time this blog post was published, it's difficult to gauge Johnston's hiring.If nothing else, he certainly seems to possess the qualities general manager Jim Rutherford wanted in a new head coach.
When introducing Johnston today, Rutherford lauded his ability to make adjustments during games and for how his teams played with regards to puck possession.
Making adjustments, or failing to do so, was seen as a shortcoming of the Penguins under previous head coach Dan Bylsma. As far as puck possession goes, when a team has players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, puck possession will always be a strength.
When asked to describe his system, Johnston said:
"My basic framework of the system is puck possession, puck management, tempo of the pace. And anytime you talk about puck decisions, you want your players to have options in the games. So in every part of the game from the breakout to getting out of the zone to offensive zone entries, we want to give our players as many options as possible. We want them to use those options. We want them to pick the right options and we want to talk to them. ... I'm more inclined with the teams that I've coached over the years to really play a paced game. I want to play a paced game. I want to play a puck possession game. You own the puck, you play defensively a lot less."
In regards to puck possession, Johnston said:
"All it is driven through your center - the center of the ice and your centers on your team. Escaping the zone quick. We have a percentage that we want to get to. We get the puck in our own zone, how quickly we can get out and how successful are we in getting out. I look at the percentages of killing the play in your defensive zone, getting the puck and moving it and getting it going in transition. Our defense are very important in escaping the zone and eventually getting the right type of attack going. But your centers are critical. To move the puck through the middle of the ice and distribute it as you enter the offensive zone is very important. That's why you look at this group of centers on this team and say they are tailor-made for that type of set up."
Regarding his time working as an assistant coach for head coach Marc Crawford with Hockey Canada as well as the Canucks and Kings, Johnston said:
"Sometimes with a coaching staff, you have different personalities. Marc and I are a little bit different with our personalities. We like a similar style of play. ... I learned a lot from Marc. He's a great person. A really good friend of mine."
Despite the desires of Rutherford and vice president of hockey operations Jason Karmanos' desire to stress a greater importance on advanced statistics in all facets of the organization, including the coaching staff, Johnston's exposure to advanced statistics appears to be limited due to the lack analytic information available at the junior level. Johnston said:
"Every level I've coached, you're always trying to evaluate your team and individuals on more than the score. So that's what analytics does. It gives you a measurement. It's obviously a lot more objective than subjective. Certainly the score is the most important thing. Winning games. At the same time, you want to have a measurement on where are we as a team. What factors are we going to measure that equal success and what are we going to measure for individuals that equal success. ... I've always toyed with it but you're limited and restricted at the junior level and the college level to have those type of resources. When I came in to the NHL, we didn't really do that. We talked a little bit about it in [Los Angeles]. I know [Kings general manager] Dean Lombardi is big on that. We talked about developing a system to measure individuals in a game. I presume [Los Angeles] probably has that now."
Tocchet clearly wasn't Johnston's choice as a hire but he seems pretty enthusiastic to have him on the staff. Tocchet brings a pretty gruff attitude as a coach and doesn't seem afraid to be a "bad guy" with players. He did wonders for forward Steve Downie in Tampa Bay. Before playing for Tocchet, Downie was a talented but extremely undisciplined player prone to penalties. For a time under Tocchet, Downie was able to become a far more useful player and scored a career-high 22 goals in 2009-10. Also that season, a 19-year-old Steven Stamkos shook off a rocky rookie season in 2008-09, and scored a league-leading 51 goals. While the Lightning did not success in terms of wins and losses under a pretty dismal ownership situation, Tocchet helped several individual players improve.
In other words, Tocchet might be better in terms of working with individuals than anything from a team-wide approach.
With regards to adding Tocchet, Johnston said:
"I'm a firm believer that a coaching staff has to have balance. ... I haven't played in the league. I don't know what it's like on a daily basis to go through a schedule like this. The pressures the players are under nowadays, I haven't experienced that. So it's very important for me on my staff to have people who have been through that. They'll be a great resource. Rick's going to be a valuable addition. "
Regarding Granato and Reirden, the writing was on the wall for them. They were Bylsma's guys and their time with the Penguins was due to come to an end with Bylsma's firing. They are each good coaches and will find work in short order.
We're not sure what to make of Martin staying with the team given the uncertain nature of his future position with the team. Having served as a head coach and general manager in the NHL, he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to offer the franchise.
Bales deserved to keep his job. He helped Marc-Andre Fleury regain some of the form which made him a franchise goaltender last season. Additionally, he was instrumental in helping develop Jeff Zatkoff into an NHL-caliber goaltender.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Jeff Gross/Getty Images Dale MacMillan/Getty Images, Chris O'Meara/Associated Press and Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)