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Penguins coach Johnston takes backseat during free agency

| Sunday, June 29, 2014, 9:45 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston, left, and general manager Jim Rutherford attend a press conference at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Mike Johnston won't have much input on his roster.

The Penguins new coach was merely an observer during the NHL Draft in Philadelphia last weekend and said he will have little influence over his team's decisions in the free agency period, which begins Tuesday.

Johnston merely will coach the team that general manager Jim Rutherford constructs.

How much will Johnston contribute to free agency?

“None,” he said, explaining that it wouldn't be prudent for a new NHL coach to dictate such decisions. “If I happen to know a player because I've coached him in the past, then sure, I'll say something. But I respect everything Jim (and his staff) do. This is their area of expertise. I respect what they do.”

While the Penguins front office busily will pursue free agents beginning at noon Tuesday — Rutherford said the team possesses four targets — Johnston will be getting to work by analyzing the players already on his roster.

The past week has been a whirlwind for Johnston, who met with Rutherford in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, traveled to Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning for his introductory news conference before immediately returning to Philadelphia for draft weekend.

“I'm going to watch a lot of video (this) week in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I'm going to get video clips and watch every aspect of their games last year, to get familiar with what they did. That's my priority this week.”

While Johnston will merely observe the free agent process, he is hoping for certain types of players when the Penguins go shopping with about $14.6 million in cap space.

He wants the Penguins to play a puck-possession game.

“I want speed out there,” Johnston said. “I want players who think the game. The final component we all want as coaches is grit, people going to the net, winning loose puck battles.”

Johnston, making his first comments since the Penguins traded right wing James Neal to Nashville on Friday, explained that one of the players the Penguins received in return provides a template for the kind of player he favors.

Right wing Patric Hornqvist, who will play with either center Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin next season, fits the bill for Johnston.

“It was primarily (Rutherford) and his staff that made the decision to make the trade,” Johnston said. “But I know Hornqvist a little bit. I know some people in Nashville. They love his work ethic. He's a gritty player, a complete player.”

Losing a former 40-goal scorer like Neal doesn't seem to bother Johnston.

“I don't know these players yet,” Johnston said. “I know Neal was a proven scorer. But with every move the team makes, we're trying to improve. Jim considers these guys (Hornqvist and Nick Spaling) key components to our team. We've added some scoring and grit.”

The Penguins will attempt to add to their forward depth Tuesday. Associate general manager Jason Botterill said the organization plans on using young defensemen — he mentioned Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington — to replace defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland, none of whom are expected to return.

The youth movement on the blue line will allow the Penguins to spend more money than usual on forwards, with former Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin having already emerged as a target.

Johnston hasn't contacted Malkin yet but is hopeful Malkin and Sidney will be happy with the team's direction.

“I want them to be excited,” Johnston said. “It's key that we add the right pieces to our team to be successful.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter JoshYohe_Trib.

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