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New candidate emerges in Pens' coaching search

| Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 3:15 p.m.

General manager Jim Rutherford has somebody in mind to become the Penguins' next coach.

That somebody did not interview with Rutherford last week. That leaves Ulf Samuelsson and John Hynes as unlikely contenders.

“My concentration right now is on a guy that would have been on my original list, but I was told he had a commitment,” Rutherford said Tuesday.

Rutherford would not identify his candidate, but team and league sources told the Tribune-Review that Mike Johnston has interviewed with Rutherford. Johnston is the general manager and coach for Portland of the Western Hockey League, where he worked with Penguins top prospect Derrick Pouliot.

His Portland clubs qualified for the WHL playoffs in three of his four full seasons, but he also was suspended for most of the 2012-13 season after a league investigation found Portland violated rules by providing benefits to players and their families.

Among Portland's team penalties were a $200,000 fine and forfeiture of first-round selections in the bantam drafts from 2014-17. Portland ownership and Johnston disputed the severity of the punishment, but Johnston also accepted it.

Johnston could not be reached for comment.

Johnston was an NHL assistant coach with Vancouver, and then Los Angeles from 1999-2008, and he has had management and coaching experience at various levels throughout Hockey Canada. His Portland squads were known for winning with an up-tempo style.

Johnston also interviewed for the Vancouver opening, which went to Willie Desjardins — Rutherford's first confirmed choice to replace Dan Bylsma, who was fired June 6.

Desjardins was among eight candidates originally to interview for the Penguins' job. Bill Peters was hired by Carolina. Another, former NHL coach Marc Crawford, said he is not interested in returning to the league next season.

Samuelsson, a former Penguins defenseman and current assistant with the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers, and Hynes, coach of the Penguins' AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, also interviewed with Rutherford, as did former NHL coach Ron Wilson.

Johnston shares a home Canadian province with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Johnston is from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Crosby was born in Cole Harbour and owns a home in Halifax.

Crosby was in Las Vegas for the NHL Awards show Tuesday. Rutherford confirmed Tuesday that he has had a “good … in-person” meeting with Crosby.

Rutherford said details of meetings with players would remain confidential.

Also confidential is his list of coaching candidates, though Rutherford said he remains on track to fill the position by July 1, the start of NHL free agency.

Rutherford is in Philadelphia for this weekend's NHL Entry Draft. He did not rule out making a hire before the event.

“It has to be a guy that has good character, good leadership qualities, a guy that can handle the players we have, and a guy that can make adjustments during a game or a series. That's very, very important,” Rutherford said. “I still have a guy in my group of names that's capable of doing that.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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