Mike Johnston came into Pittsburgh with a reputation as a WHL titan, but a closer look at his history with the Hawks reveals an interesting snag to that narrative. Perhaps it was the Vancouver Canucks who did their research a little better on that front.
The Mike Johnston era came to an end on the weekend, as Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford dismissed the coach after less than a season and a half of duty behind the Penguins bench. During his tenure, Johnston got Pittsburgh to the playoffs and had them in within striking distance to return this season, but a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury cannot simply vie for a spot in the post-season – it should be contending for the Stanley Cup.
This was not the case during Johnston’s run and while a lot of the blame is to be shouldered by Rutherford (the Simon Despres trade, so far the Phil Kessel trade, etc.), there’s no reason a team with as much talent as Pittsburgh should have one of the worst power plays in the NHL (they currently rank 27th overall) and struggle to score.
So yeah, the hiring was a bust. Perhaps the Penguins didn’t do their research deeply enough: Johnston made his name with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, but there is more to that story than what you’d glean from skimming the surface.
During Johnston’s reign as Portland’s coach and GM, the Winterhawks were a potent force in major junior. In short order, he took a dead-in-the-water franchise and had the squad in the WHL final by his second full season behind the bench. Portland returned to the final the next season as well. Recruiting was a strong suit, with the team nailing its import selections (Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi) and assembling an incredibly deep lineup overall.
But then a scandal involving extra perks for players – an overblown scandal, if you ask me – saw Johnston suspended during the 2012-13 campaign. That’s when assistant coach Travis Green took over for the rest of the year and that’s also the year Portland won the WHL final and played for the Memorial Cup.
Did the presence of future Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones help matters? Sure, but the Hawks were stacked in other years, too, with players such as Ryan Johansen, Ty Rattie and Derrick Pouliot.
Green got Portland to the promised land and earned a new head coaching gig with Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Utica for his efforts. Meanwhile, Johnston returned from his suspension the next season – and Portland lost in the final again.
When Johnston came to Pittsburgh, he promised an up-tempo style for the Penguins. He said that his squad would be built for the playoffs. But no playoff team scored fewer goals than Pittsburgh last season and this year it’s been even more pop-gun. Oh, and the Pens lost in the first round to the Rangers, scoring just eight goals in five games.
Green, on the other hand, is known for challenging and pushing his players. In just his second year with Utica, he got the Comets to the final of the Calder Cup, one year after they missed the playoffs. And by all accounts, he has really helped develop some of Vancouver’s most promising young talents.
Should Pittsburgh have gone for Green instead? It’s not a simple binary, but they did reportedly try to get him at one point as an assistant to Johnston. Green wanted to keep his pro options open and it seems like the right move. Now, he’s one of the most hyped names for an NHL coaching job, though I have to wonder if Vancouver regards him as their ace in the hole should the Canucks ever part ways with current bench boss Willie Desjardins. Kind of like how Detroit made sure Jeff Blashill was taken care of in AHL Grand Rapids while Mike Babcock was still coaching the Red Wings.
In the meantime, the Pens must look back and figure out what went wrong with the Johnston hiring. Maybe Johnston was just a really good GM in Portland and a decent junior coach. Have the Penguins had good results since Rutherford took over as GM in the summer of 2014? Hmmm…this might not be the time for that can of worms.