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Penguins coach says team needs to 'lessen the load' on Crosby

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 8:44 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the ice together in the third period against the Blue Jackets in Game 4 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio.

Mike Johnston understands that much of his success as coach of the Penguins will hinge on the performances of franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That's why Johnston visited Nova Scotia and Moscow this offseason to spend time with Crosby and Malkin — in their home countries, on their own turf.

It also is why Johnston not-so-subtly pointed out during an interview with the Tribune-Review inside his Consol Energy Center office Monday morning that giving the Penguins a chance to play for another Stanley Cup isn't a one-man job.

Johnston said the Penguins need to “lessen the load” on Crosby, who scored one goal in 13 postseason games this past spring and drew intense scrutiny from Penguins fans for the first time in his tenure here.

“You don't ever question his work ethic,” Johnston said of Crosby. “You don't ever question his commitment. For a guy his age coming into the NHL and carrying the load that he's carried, I believe he's done a phenomenal job.

“Do we have to lessen the load? Yes. We have to ensure that other players on our team take some of the responsibility off his shoulders — both in leadership and also in performance. He is a captain, and he is a leader, but it doesn't all rest on Sid.”

How will the Penguins make things easier for Crosby and, to a degree, Malkin?

Well, the answer isn't exactly clear.

Depth is the biggest thing, general manager Jim Rutherford said. And after bringing in potential top-nine forwards Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spalling and Steve Downie, as well as defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, Rutherford thinks the Penguins are plenty deep.

“We have a very well-balanced group of forwards,” Rutherford said. “With that being said, everybody has to do their job. We know who the top players on the team are. We know who's going to win more games for us. But in order for us to get to our goal, we have to have everybody contributing. When you have that, it should take some of the pressure off the top players.”

Johnston pointed to the team's existing group of leaders, naming forwards Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams, as well as defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang. He said Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury are full of “energy and humor” and will “balance the group out a little bit.”

Malkin going all “Malkamania” on the rest of the NHL would, of course, be a trump card. Few are capable of stopping a determined Malkin.

Just look at his hat trick in Game 6 to eliminate the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs or the three goals and seven points he had against the Rangers.

Johnston traveled to Moscow with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar, who goes every year, in late July to meet with Malkin. The talk was not centered around hockey, more in getting to know Malkin.

“It was not about power play or penalty kill or where they're going to be used or who they're going to play with,” Johnston said of his offseason meetings with players. “It was more about what they like to do, what's their family situation, how did they grow up.

“I think if you know a little bit about the player's background, it's going to help in the transition to a new coaching staff and a little bit of a new management group.”

Johnston said he and Malkin “didn't spend a lot of time together.” They had lunch, Johnston said. The next day, he and Kadar watched Malkin train in the woods with former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Johnston said he and Kadar ate alone that night.

“It wasn't a long trip, but again, it was a chance to connect,” Johnston said. “Geno seems to me, at least when he's around our group, like he's an upbeat guy, a funny guy.

“I know when he said something in Russian to a few of the people at the table, everybody was almost dying laughing. With Mike and I, he was a little bit more comfortable with Mike. You could tell with his buddies he was much more relaxed.”

It's doubtful Penguins management will want Crosby and Malkin to relax much, if at all. But them being comfortable around a relatively new group? There's a good chance Johnston would take that.

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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