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New Penguins coach Johnston understands pressures of NHL job

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 10:02 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
New Penguins coach Mike Johnston (center) stands between new assistant coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Jim Rutherford during their introductory news conference Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Sidney Crosby's Penguins will chase the Stanley Cup with a coach out of junior hockey.

Mike Johnston was introduced as the Penguins' 21st coach on Wednesday. He and ownership's appointed assistant, former player Rick Tocchet, received three-year contracts.

Though they have checkered pasts, Johnston, 57, and Tocchet, 50, are tough enough to lead the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup, general manager Jim Rutherford said.

“Not about the players, but part of what I learned was that this is an intimidating position to take — and I sensed that when I talked to some of these guys,” Rutherford said of the search that ended with the hiring of Johnston.

Upon firing former general manager Ray Shero six weeks ago, Penguins majority co-owner Ron Burkle said he and partner Mario Lemieux were not satisfied with their franchise's standing among only the NHL's “top quartile.”

Johnston downplayed Cup-or-bust expectations.

“We're not going to compromise in certain areas to have that playoff-ready team,” Johnston said.

Rutherford interviewed eight candidates last week. Johnston was not one, though he had interviewed with Vancouver for a coaching vacancy that went to Willie Desjardins, Rutherford's original choice for the Penguins.

Desjardins, an AHL coach with limited experience as an NHL assistant, met with Rutherford last Thursday and Friday but was hired by the Canucks on Monday.

Johnston said he spoke with Rutherford last weekend. They met Tuesday in Philadelphia, site of the NHL Entry Draft.

Johnston has not worked for an NHL club since spending the 2007-08 season with Los Angeles, where he had a two-year run as an assistant. Prior to joining the Kings, Johnston was an assistant coach for six seasons with Vancouver, where he worked under Marc Crawford, who interviewed for the Penguins' vacancy last week.

Johnston comes to the Penguins via Portland of the Western Hockey League, which is a junior league in Canada. He was the general manager and coach from 2008-14.

Johnston's clubs lost in the WHL final in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Portland won the WHL Final and lost the Memorial Cup in 2013, but Johnston was serving a suspension during that postseason run.

The WHL investigated Portland for violations related to player benefits, and its findings resulted in stiff punishments. Johnston missed 83 games, including the playoffs, because of a suspension levied in November 2012. Portland was fined $200,000 in addition to forfeiture of bantam draft picks in Rounds 1-5 in 2013 and first-round picks from 2014-17.

“I was a rookie general manager in the (WHL),” Johnston said Wednesday. “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.”

Tocchet's NHL coaching career was impacted not by a suspension but a leave of absence from 2006-08 while he was with Phoenix. Tocchet was alleged to have ties to a gambling ring, and he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to promote gambling and also promoting gambling in May 2007.

Tocchet said then he never bet on professional hockey games, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reinstated him in February 2008.

“Not to totally get into it, but I took the absence,” Tocchet said Wednesday. “I slept well at night. There's a lot more to it for how little of a story it was. I was never worried about it. I'm a straight shooter. I'd be honest about it.”

Rutherford said Wednesday he had no concerns about the character of the men he hired. He lauded Johnston's “great experience at many levels of hockey,” including various roles within Hockey Canada. Also, Rutherford said, Johnston is a coach “capable of making adjustments during games.”

“That's probably his strongest suit,” Rutherford said.

Tocchet's role will be to challenge players — including Crosby, a two-time MVP, and his fellow franchise center Evgeni Malkin, also a former MVP, Rutherford said.

“You bring a guy like Tocchet, who has his resume as an assistant coach and a head coach and who was a no-nonsense player, and these are two guys that can work off of each other,” Rutherford said.

Johnston said another assistant would be added to the coaching staff. Retained from the staff of Johnston's predecessor, Dan Bylsma, was goalie coach Mike Bales and video coordinator Andy Saucier.

Bylsma's other assistants, Todd Reirden and Tony Granato, were fired Wednesday. Hours later, Reirden joined the Washington Capitals as an assistant.

Jacques Martin, hired last offseason by Penguins majority co-owner Mario Lemieux, will be given a different role within the organization.

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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