@CoachKoby is a lifelong Portland Winterhawks fan. We reached out to him for some perspective on Mike Johnston.
I’m from Oregon and grew up going to Winterhawks games in Portland. The guys asked me for my thoughts on the Pens new coach Mike Johnston who spent the last six seasons as the head coach and general manager here in Portland.
So here’s my fan’s perspective of what the Penguins will be getting with HCMJ going forward…
THE GOOD (What you will like):
Emphasis on Speed:
Since arriving in Portland, Johnston has put a premium on speed and skating ability. Under HCMJ the Hawks have drafted and developed numerous under-sized players who have thrived using their speed on the outside to gain the zone and then be creative. Players like Ty Rattie, Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and others, all under 6 feet tall, thrived with creativity and space to make plays. The system will be tailor-made for players like Malkin, Crosby, and even Sutter (in my opinion) to thrive.
A lot was made of Bylsma’s penchant to play “grinders” like Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, etc. You’re going to probably see HCMJ trend the other way as I’ve already mentioned above.
The Winterhawks tracked internally zone entries and placed a heavy emphasis on carry-ins. Johnston would use certain players like a Leipsic in high-leverage situations because of their strength in this area. The Hawks played very little dump and chase hockey because of this. Also, as many have mentioned, don’t expect many stretch passes up the ice. Defensemen have the green light to carry the zone offensively, but very few were unleashed to snap deep passes down the ice. Joe Morrow and Derick Pouliot are the only ones that come to mind that were given that luxury.
The other area I think that many fans will be excited to see is the emphasis he will place on shot volume. I don’t know if the Hawks tracked or even discussed Corsi or Fenwick but Johnston often spoke publicly about the importance of these areas to the Winterhawks game.
Be ready to see top-6 forwards on the PK. Johnston’s top PK unit in Portland last year featured Taylor Leier and Nic Petan while 50-goal scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand was on the 2nd unit most of the season. The PK was ultra-aggressive and looked often to create chances the other way. The Winterhawks scored 14 shorthanded goals in 2013-2014, Leier had 4, Bjorkstrand 4 and Petan 3. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Crosby killing more penalties next season, but that’s just a hunch.
Like Bylsma, HCMJ has come under fire for playoff failures. The similarities are actually kind of eerie.
Both made deep playoff runs (Johnson’s even to the finals) where the one team was seen to have the superior roster but then lost to a lesser opponent due to defensive lapses and bad turnovers in the neutral zone.
In fact, the only post-season championship the Winterhawks won in Johnston’s tenure came during his suspension (for, essentially, recruiting violations) with Travis Green acting as head coach for almost the entire season including the playoffs.
The 3rd and 4th lines:
Johnston is not a cure-all for this team’s problems. In Portland he deployed his 3rd and 4th lines with a balance of skill and grit. Right now the Pens have nowhere close to the type of roster he will need to use in the bottom-6 in the same capacity that was so successful for him in PDX.
Pouliot and Despres:
This system needs defensemen who can carry the zone and make end to end decisions constantly. Pouliot, if healthy, is obviously very familiar to HCMJ and Despres’ skill set is tailor made for what they will want to do. Without a back end that can do this the Pens could be in the same boat they were last year.
Thanks again for the opportunity to write for the site. Hopefully this sheds a little light to everyone on what the Pens are getting this next season with Mike Johnston. Overall, it’s a good hire and he will fit in well, but the roster still needs work to help his tenure be a successful one.