Seems the default switch to the hire made by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday is firmly tilted toward a dose of vigorous skepticism by many. When it was announced around lunchtime that Mike Johnston, 57, was going to succeed Dan Bylsma who was fired at the beginning of the month, there were irrefutable truths that some in Pittsburgh felt they needed to force on others as to why Johnston will fail.
Irrefutable truths to them, at least.
You see, because Johnston — who accepted the position after being the general manager and coach in Portland of the Western Hockey League since 2008 — wasn’t some NHL lifer or NHL coaching carousel retread, it feels as if the fanbase here in Pittsburgh already has a deep sense of incredulity and suspicion about the hire.
Look, there’s no telling if Johnston will be a great hire, a terrible hire or somewhere in the vastness between, but I think this column space is fair to point out why some of the commonly-held criticisms of Johnston might just be off base:
1. “He wasn’t the Penguins’ first choice!!!”
OK, so? Where does it say that, in order to be successful, one has to be the initial choice of the organization? Certainly not many would argue with the concept that Willie Desjardins was the top target of the Penguins, yet spurned the organization for the Vancouver job.
Maybe Desjardins didn’t like the terms of the contract presented to him, conceivably he didn’t like that an assistant — most likely Rick Tocchet — was going to be forced on him or, perhaps, he just enjoyed the challenge of Vancouver better. Whatever the case, the Penguins seemed to have a list of candidates with which Johnston didn’t appear at the very top of.
I say again: OK, so?
Is it conceivable that, during the progression of the search the Penguins came to the realization that they should widen their horizons and cast a more expansive net? Sure it is.
Is it also conceivable that, upon finally getting that interview Johnston — known as a master tactician — wowed the team brass with his knowledge? Sure it is.
Not being the first choice isn’t the most important thing in this process; rising to the level of being offered the job and truly wanting to be the coach of the Penguins is. Desjardins obviously didn’t want to be here; Johnston did.
2. “He doesn’t have enough NHL experience!!!”
Let’s get something square: Mike Johnston worked for eight seasons in the NHL — first for six seasons in Vancouver and then two with the Los Angeles Kings. In fairness, he hasn’t worked in the NHL since 2008, but he had a winning percentage of over .700 in his five years in the WHL. His Portland team also reached the league finals in the last four seasons.
Anyhow, back to the lack of NHL experience …
For me, eight seasons as an assistant coach is enough to look at someone and feel — especially when coupled with the WHL success — that they are qualified.
By contrast to Johnston, when Dan Bylsma was hired by the Penguins, he had one season as an NHL assistant on his resume and just four others in coaching altogether.
In addition, the man who was targeted by the Penguins as their top candidate, Desjardins, has zero NHL head coaching experience and even less time as an assistant in the league than Johnston, serving two seasons in Dallas.
On top of all of this, both Peter DeBoer (the coach of the Devils) and Patrick Roy (head coach in Colorado) have made the jump from junior hockey to the NHL. In the case of both DeBoer and Roy, however, neither spent a singular day as an NHL assistant.
So in taking a fair, unbalanced look at Johnston’s resume when measured against some of his peers, does it really have that many holes?
3. “He was involved in a scandal in Portland!!!”
Now, no one can fully ignore that he was suspended for a decent chunk of the 2012-13 Portland season for a violation of player benefits.
But in just diving into a Google search on the matter, know what turns up? Johnston gave some plane tickets to players’ families, kicked a few players some free cell phones and also had the organization pay for off-season workouts for some of the guys on the team.
All were violations in that league.
To me, all were a way of having his players’ backs. As twisted as that might sound to you — and as against the rules as that is — that is the kind of coach, if I’m a player, who I absolutely want to play for.
Of the infractions, Johnston said in his Penguins introductory press conference: “I was a rookie general manager. On the player benefits side, we made an error with the way we did things the first couple of years. Subsequent to that was a suspension. It had nothing to do with coaching, but because I held a general manager/coach position, that impacted the coaching side.”
It hasn’t, one bit impacted the way anyone should feel about his allegiance to his players which, to me, is of much more importance than some arbitrary rule about an organization that uses kids to get ahead trying to help them out monetarily time and again.
In short, I don’t know if Johnston will be a dud or one of the greatest coaches this city has ever known. But what I do know is some of the knee-jerk, negative reaction appears to be unfounded.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.