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Penguins Head Coach Mike Johnston Is Strangling This Team

Is Mike Johnston happy? Is he upset? Hard to tell, as this is the same face for both. Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Is Mike Johnston happy? Is he upset? Hard to tell, as this is the same face for both.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Some ideas are good in theory. Some ideas become good in practice. The Penguins hiring Mike Johnston prior to the 2014 season has turned out to be neither.

Johnston would be better suited to coaching a young team with talent that needed to be molded. The Edmonton Oilers spring to mind. But why the Penguins decided to take a chance on an unproven coach at this point in their win cycle is unclear. Not only is this team constructed to win now, they’re probably a little past their peak, in all honesty. As I see it, this team has this year and perhaps 1-2 more seasons until it will be time to tear it down and start over.

On the surface, things look OK. At the time of this writing, the Pens are in possession of one of the wild card spots for the playoffs. They have been playing strong defense for the vast majority of the year. Their 2.22 goals allowed per game is 4th best in the NHL and 3rd best in the Eastern Conference.

But after scratching the surface, things are rotten in Denmark. Or Uptown, in this case. They have scored the same amount of goals, 2.22/game, as they’ve allowed, which is good for 26th best in the NHL — tied with the lowly Buffalo Sabres.

The Penguins are winning, but they’re not winning in an elegant fashion. Is that necessary? Shouldn’t the bottom line be wins? Usually, but it seems to be squandering such an array of talent to be playing a defense-first system. And therein lies the problem. Mike Johnston is trying to put square pegs into round holes by forcing world-class offensive talents like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang to play this style. Again, this is a style that seems more suited for a young team trying to build an identity.

When you watch the Penguins, you don’t see a team having fun. You see a team getting its will choked out by a coach with a system that is not suited to them at all. By allowing this to happen under the watch of Jim Rutherford, himself a Timex watch in a digital world, it appears as if Mario Lemieux is content to be an absentee landlord of the Penguins. Perhaps by putting the team up for sale he has washed his hands of all involvement with the Penguins.

If things continue on this current trendline, it’s hard to see Mike Johnston being here past Christmas. In fact, mark me down for December 9th, right after the final game of a West Coast trip against the Avalanche. That will give the new coach a home game against the LA Kings on December 11th as his first game. As for who that new coach should be? The easy answer would be Rick Tocchet, but I can’t understand why he isn’t getting more criticism for the anemic power play under his watch. He’s a friend of Lemieux, I suppose, for whatever that is worth.

My choice would be Jacques Martin. Yes, he’s not exactly known for his freewheeling offensive coaching style, either, but he’s done it before and he can take a veteran, win-now team and guide them into the playoffs. He knows enough to craft a system that suits the talents of his players, not the other way around.

It’s time to admit that Mike Johnston is this decade’s version of Ivan Hlinka, an ill-suited choice to lead an NHL team. Unless the Pittsburgh Penguins are content to watch another season of Crosby and Malkin’s career go by the wayside.

About Kevin Creagh (239 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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