Players respect coach, refuse to blame Johnston
Mike Johnston isn't about to change.
The Penguins are playing their worst hockey of the season and the playoffs are less than three weeks away, but the quiet, first-year coach won't panic.
His players appreciate it.
“The thing about Mike,” center Brandon Sutter said, “is that you can count on him no matter what. He's so level-headed. I think he's been great.”
Johnston would have every right to let out the occasional roar. His team has dropped six of its past seven games and was especially awful against Carolina on Thursday, showing little regard for defense while losing to one of the NHL's worst teams.
But to let his emotions override his intellect wouldn't be Johnston's way.
“Everybody has their core strengths that they rely on,” Johnston said. “I can get emotional, but I try to keep it in check. That's just my personality, how I've always done it. I like to give direction and to be firm. But (you can't) get out of whack or out of character.”
Defenseman Derrick Pouliot's teams in Portland (WHL) didn't endure many losing streaks, but when they did, the calm guidance of Johnston led them back to the win column.
“His message right now is that things are going to turn around,” Pouliot said. “Don't throw away everything that we've all worked so hard for.”
To a man, the Penguins insisted Friday that Johnston's hasn't lost the locker room during this stretch. If anything, they said, he has strengthened the team during its worst patch of the season.
Defenseman Rob Scuderi has played for six head coaches in 11 NHL seasons.
“I've been very pleased with how the coaching staff has handled this situation,” he said. “This isn't easy, being in a funk like this. The last thing you need to see is your coach unraveling. Everyone seems to stay calm because Mike is calm. And that's what we need. He's been consistent since Day 1. He's pushing some buttons right now, nitpicking a little bit. But he needs to right now. He's been great.”
Johnston explained that being the head coach of an NHL team is a little different than some may envision. Throwing tirades isn't usually the answer.
“Everybody looks at a script of a coach and at what you say (between periods),” he said. “Most coaches will tell you it's not some song and dance, standing on a soapbox. It's about the details, the structure. Every now and then you have to go out of character to keep people sharp and on their toes. But you have to be who you are.”
The more seasoned Penguins have experienced coaching extremes, from the no-nonsense Michel Therrien approach to the usually smiling Dan Bylsma days.
They insist Johnston's way will give them the best opportunity for playoff success. The coach has dealt with the loss of two players (Olli Maatta and Pascal Dupuis) for the season, a mumps outbreak, an off year statistically from his two star centers and playing in the same division as three other Stanley Cup contenders.
“He's been good,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He knows we can be good when we play the right way. He's patient with us.”
The point was clear from the Penguins. They aren't playing good hockey, but don't blame the coach. And don't think for a moment that the coach has lost the room.
“It would be so easy to panic right now,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “And hey, no one is happy with how we're playing. It's a big deal. But panicking only makes it worse. This guy is a good coach. His style is what we need right now.”