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Mike Johnston Will Embrace Skill and Penguins Should Thrive

June 25, 2014, 11:23 AM ET [379 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
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Before I get to the Penguins new coaching hire congratulations are in order for Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby took home the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay award last night. Amazingly enough this is only his 2nd Hart Trophy and his first since 2007. Injuries injuries injuries.

Crosby was the runaway winner for the Hart Trophy, after forfeiting the best player in the world honor to about 7 different players in the past 2 months, today he "reclaims" that title. Happy days.

Seriously though, Crosby had a freakishly good season. His season was known for its offensive output, his 104 points were the best in the league and the runner up (Getzlaf) was 17 points behind. However, the reason you should consider this to be one of Crosby's finer seasons is because of the role he played this year. He played in a shutdown role while putting up those offensive numbers.

Here are the top 10 skaters in the Hart Trophy vote and how they were deployed:

Sid faced the 2nd hardest competition of the group, only Jonathan Toews (upper right corner) faced harder opponents more often. That Jupiter looking ball on the far left is Selke award winner Patrice Bergeron.

When you take into consideration the kind of minutes Crosby played and then throw in his offensive output, it was a no brainer for him to win the hardware this year. Truly the NHL's most valuable, and most outstanding player.


The Penguins have finally hired a head coach. The process hasn't quite been the most polished, but the end result was the same, the Penguins have a new bench boss. The man hired is Mike Johnston, formerly of the Portland Winterhawks.

There will be questions about the fact he has not been a head coach in the NHL and that he is coming from the junior ranks. That was never an area I was concerned with, hockey is hockey. The only thing that changes at the NHL level is the fact the players are NHL talented. Conceptually, it is all the same.

So what does Mike Johnston believe in, what are his strengths?

If you like offense and an entertaining style of play, you should be looking forward to this hire.

If you want the specifics of Mike Johnston's coaching philosophies I have them for you right here. This is taken right from the Portland Winterhawks website :


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

Tell me that those aren't the kinds of things you want to see when watching hockey.

Conceptually it is perfect. Here is to hoping that he will be able to communicate these philosophies and find tangible results with his players on the ice. It's one thing to draw up a beautiful game plan, its completely another thing to watch it play out on the ice.

If you are hiring a coach that values this kind of style it should spell an end to acquiring players like Scuderi, Adams, Glass, Engelland, Pyatt, and Vitale. Music to my ears. The Penguins may struggle to unload Scuderi's contract, but I'd like to think that the days of actually giving out that contract are done and over with.

Dan Bylsma did enjoy playing an aggressive up tempo style (get "North") but he also fell in love with untalented grit which sank the team more times than not. I don't believe that those kind of choices will be made in the new regime. To play up tempo you need to value players who can handle it. This would be a big shift in organizational philosophy and one that is long overdue.

The Penguins are used to playing an up tempo style, now they might be able to do so without the needless speed bumps that have littered their roster.

I watch hockey because it is supposed to be entertaining, I think the Penguins are going to continue to be one of the best watches in the entire sport, but with a better emphasis on the kinds of players that can play this style successfully.

I know that the perception is that Penguins have been operating in a country club atmosphere the past few years, but I don't agree with that assessment. Sure there was the mustache boy shootout every month and the cancelled practices (which every team does) but don't think for a second the Penguins have been having any fun at all. I think high expectations coupled with flawed rosters have taken quite the mental toll on the team. A bad working environment so to speak. It is never fun when nothing ever seems to be good enough when you are at your job.

It is time for a fresh approach. Embrace the skill the Penguins have and embrace acquiring more of it, even if it comes in the form of younger players with potential mistakes on the horizon. To be the best at something you need to love it, I don't think the Penguins have been loving hockey for a few years now. And loving something doesn't mean you won't work hard at it, quite the opposite in fact.

As with any coaching hire in professional sports you have a feeling of anticipation and hope of the things to come. Success is far from guaranteed but I can get on board with the principles and philosophies that this coach believes in. It is now up to him to get the players to execute his master plan.

If the Penguins skilled players and team core can't get behind a guy who's philosophies seem tailor made to help them succeed than I think it says a lot more about the players than it does the coach.

I like the hire and I hope that it ushers in a new fun and successful brand of Penguins hockey.

Thanks for reading!

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