Penguins' Johnston eager to implement up-tempo style
When Mike Johnston was head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, he once took an offseason trip with one of his assistants, Kyle Gustafson, to watch the University of Oregon's football team practice.
The son of a football coach and a lifelong fan of the game, Johnston had always admired the hyper-fast spread offense of coach Chip Kelly, how the Ducks played with speed and tempo and how they used their system to wear down the other team.
“I believe (that) in sports, sometimes we get tunnel vision in our own sporting field; we don't look externally to see what other people are doing,” said Johnston, who was hired by the Penguins on June 25. “The best way to figure out some new things we should be doing in hockey, I believe we have to look at other sports to try to pick up some things from that.”
Johnston, 57, has hardly a conventional background or approach — and maybe that's just what this franchise needs. He certainly is not afraid to look somewhere else or try something different.
Like the hourlong practices he held in Portland that included virtually no formal instruction and instead had music blasting throughout nonstop drills, a nod to something he watched Kelly do.
Or going to Portland Trail Blazers games to take notes on how the coaching staff reacted to specific situations and communicated with players.
Or attending mixed martial arts fights, not because he was a fan but simply to see how fighters carried themselves.
What he learned from these trips was later spun into an inspirational message to accompany a long road trip, or it would change how Johnston and Gustafson handled Portland's players.
“He's a guy who's very thought-out and thorough,” Gustafson said. “He's going to sit there and think about it. He's not a reactionary guy.”
Which is more than can be said about those paying money to watch Johnston and the Penguins.
Johnston, a native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, takes over for Dan Bylsma after an awkward-at-times coaching search that appeared to lead the Penguins to Willie Desjardins, only to take a last-minute turn.
General manager Jim Rutherford later insisted he thought Johnston was unavailable because he was headed to Vancouver for the Canucks' coaching job, which Desjardins got.
In any case, Johnston isn't overseeing a rebuilding project here like he did in Portland. He's the coach of a team with two of the NHL's brightest stars in the prime of their careers. Both want to prove that winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 was no fluke.
The preseason figures to be about the only adjustment period a Cup-hungry fan base will give Johnston, Rutherford and the rest of the new additions to get acclimated.
“The expectations should be high here,” Rutherford said. “When you look at the players we have, we should be expected to win.”
Say this about Johnston: His time in Portland rarely was boring.
He took a team that had averaged 35 points per season the three years before he arrived and led them to a 91-point finish in 2009-10.
Over his five years in Portland, the Winterhawks averaged 105.2 points per season.
The Winterhawks' goal differential also improved, jumping from an average of minus-156 those three previous years to plus-99.4 under Johnson. His teams, employing that Oregon style of offense, averaged 313.8 goals per season.
Though Johnston worked as an assistant with the Vancouver Canucks (1999-2006) and Los Angeles Kings (2006-08), he seemed to thrive in Portland, where he also was GM.
That resonated with Rutherford.
So did Johnston's international accomplishments: five medals at the World Championships (two gold, two silver and one bronze) and two golds at the World Junior Championships.
“The biggest thing is that he's open to communication to the players,” Rutherford said. “He has a game plan. He plays the game the way that I like it played: a real puck-possession game, a speed game, an up-tempo game. He has prepared for this job his whole career. I feel very good about the fact that Mike got this job.”
Johnston's teams in Portland reached four consecutive Western Hockey League finals, but he was suspended for the duration of the 2012-13 season after it was revealed in November that he provided improper benefits to players, among other infractions.
The violations included providing flights for players' families, paying for players' summer workouts and supplying a cell phone for its captain. While Rutherford said he doesn't condone breaking the rules, he also said the infractions weren't enough to influence his hiring.
“Based on what I know about it, I don't think it's that big of a deal,” Rutherford said. “He certainly broke the rules of that league, but there are circumstances around dealing with different families that aren't able to get to certain places and can't afford to do it. You don't like to see anybody break the rules, but based on the circumstances, I really don't mind what he did.”
‘A real caring guy'
Gustafson hopes Penguins fans don't enter this relationship with a negative impression of Johnston.
“He's the most caring guy I've been around,” Gustafson said. “Whether it's (with) players, alumni or management, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. That's just the way that he is.”
Gustafson has plenty of examples to support his case.
Before Johnston left for Pittsburgh, he organized a family get-together with Johnston so their families could see each other one last time and offer a few well-wishes.
On game days, Johnston's routine was to stop at Starbucks for a latte — his favorite — and phone Gustafson, who never left the rink, to get his order, too.
An admitted foodie, Johnston fell for Portland's many food trucks. Above all, he enjoys tapas dates with his wife, Myrna.
They bought a condo in Downtown Pittsburgh, hoping it will better integrate them into city life. There is a YMCA nearby, where Johnston hopes to work out at before coming to the rink.
He even completed the ALS ice bucket challenge on the roof of Consol Energy Center with the city's skyline in the background.
Earlier this year, the Johnstons completed one of their longtime goals: becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, a process that, when brought up, still brings a smile to the new coach's face more than seven months later.
“When he came into Portland, he wanted to change the culture here,” Gustafson said. “He's a real thoughtful guy, a real caring guy. If he cares like that, the hockey stuff is going to take care of itself.”
An obsession with football isn't a joke or a cheap gimmick. The sport's attention to detail has always has fascinated Johnston.
“It's very detailed,” Johnston said. “When you sit with the linemen in a meeting, then you go on the field and they do their drills, it's so technical — where your eyes are, where your hands are, where you step. That type of teaching is good for our coaches. Sometimes we just assume that guys are pros, and we don't need to teach anymore. You still have to. Those small points are really critical.”
One of Johnston's priorities once he arrived in Pittsburgh was to reach out to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and attend a Steelers practice which he did before the season started.
He talked to Tomlin and other coaches. He sat in on a tight ends meeting.
At practice, Johnston plans on using the music practices as a teaching tool. According to defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who played for Johnston in Portland, the drills hardly stop, good or bad. Players are trusted to correct their own mistakes.
“It's a little different, sure, but at that point, we've got the systems down pretty well,” Pouliot said. “You can take a day where you get a nice flow practice, where you get your feet moving and you get some conditioning in.”
Johnston's teams weren't easy to prepare for said Derek Laxdal, who was coach of the Edmonton Oil Kings for the past four years before taking over the Texas Stars of the AHL.
The offensive mindset and the pace at which the Winterhawks played stuck out most to Laxdal, who predicted “up-tempo is going to be a key word.”
“We saw them the last three years in the finals,” Laxdal said. “When you don't see a team a lot in the regular season, you're trying to prepare for the way they play. Mike's teams were always up-tempo, and they played hard. Not only were they offensive-minded, but they played hard. We had a lot of respect for that team when we played them.
“They're not a trap team. It was always an up-tempo game that had a lot of systems in place for the players to be defensively responsible but also to play on the offensive side of the puck.”
While players during Bylsma's tenure would have to grow a mustache for losing in the shootout, Johnston likes to reward the winner by allowing him to prepare the mix for the next music practice.
Only one rule: There has to be two classic country songs on it.
“When I talk to the players afterward,” Johnston said, “the number of repetitions they got in that time period and how hard the practice was because there's virtually no breaks, they found it was one of the tougher practices they've ever had.”
A career coach who, like Bylsma, is a published author on the subject, Johnston doesn't believe in long practices. Ninety minutes or less is the norm. What he does try to do — and what he's done throughout his career — is get the most out of that time, by any means possible.
“When they hit the ice, they know the practice is going to be short, quick and competitive,” Johnston said. “But they don't always know what's going to happen out there.”