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Penguins

Pens coach uses rookie event to analyze team's approach

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, 9:09 p.m.
In this file photo, Penguins head coach Mike Johnston stands behind his bench in the first period of a game against the Los Angeles Kings in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
In this file photo, Penguins head coach Mike Johnston stands behind his bench in the first period of a game against the Los Angeles Kings in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.

LONDON, Ontario — The last time Mike Johnston was in this town for a rookie tournament, he was three months into his tenure as Penguins coach. Now, he's been on the job 15 months.

For him, familiarity bred pragmatism.

As his second season approaches, Johnston has undertaken a systematic approach to improving on an eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff exit in his first year behind the bench. He made a list of areas he wants his team to improve, and he's going to unveil it to the players as soon as training camp begins next week.

Some of the items on the list are big-picture concepts.

“I want to get our penalty minutes down,” Johnston said. “That's important, how we handle situations on the ice. We don't want to lose our cool. Whether it's with the refs or the other team, we want to keep our composure.”

Some of the items are tactical.

“We want to see our defense be more active in all areas,” he said. “That's a technical point. There are subtleties in how they defend. We want to close gaps and do it in a certain way.”

All are designed to make the Penguins a better team, and not marginally better, either.

If the Penguins finish seventh in the conference and lose in the second round of the playoffs, Johnston might not have the luxury of a third season with the team. The standards are relentlessly high.

“I don't know if I felt last year coming into Pittsburgh that I had a lot of leeway. My expectations coming into Pittsburgh are that we want to have a shot at the Cup,” Johnston said. “That's the way it should be. Our fans expect that. Our players expect that. Our coaching staff expects that. Different things are going to play out during the season, but we have the personnel, we have the ability to have a shot at the Cup. That's what we want.”

Johnston's pragmatism extends to the way he watches the team's prospects in London.

He's not looking at their overall games. That's for scouts. He's not watching to see how well they understand his system. Some only have had a few practices to begin to learn it.

He's looking for specific raw skills possessed by players who can thrive in the style of game he prefers.

“Mobile defense who can make a first pass,” Johnston said. “Forwards that have some intelligence, some puck control, good puck decisions.”

Notes: Penguins rookies improved to 2-0 in the tournament with a 4-1 win over Ottawa. Jaden Lindo, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Matia Marcantuoni and Mickael Beauregard scored.

Miles Liberati, a tryout defenseman from Cheswick, was in the lineup. The Penguins close out the tournament with a game against Toronto's rookies at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

• Tristan Jarry made 34 saves, carrying a shutout bid until Ottawa's Matt Puempel scored on the power play with 42.2 seconds left. Jarry, 20, has had some missteps since emerging as one of the top goalies in junior hockey two years ago, so a strong performance could give him a boost as he begins his first pro season. “You're eager to get out there and play and see what you can do after a long summer,” Jarry said.

• Dea and second-round draft pick Daniel Sprong played on the same line for the second straight game. They've known each other since they were 10, growing up in the Montreal area. “We had two good games. He's playing well. Good kid, lot of speed, good ability,” Dea said.

Jonathan Bombulie is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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