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Johnston/Tocchet: The winning ticket?

Will new head coach Mike Johnston and assistant Rick Tocchet provide the perfect mix of system, voice and toughness to take the Penguins back to Stanley Cup glory?

Credit: Getty images
Credit: Getty images

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what choice Mike Johnston was for the job, or who it was that made the decision to hire Rick Tocchet as an assistant head coach before the head coach was chosen, forcing him upon the new "head" coach. The reason that Dan Bylsma, he of the best winning percentage in modern NHL history was fired, was for a lack of results in the postseason these five past disappointing springtimes in Pittsburgh.

Will Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet be the key back to success?

Fresh perspective

Mike Johnston has never been an NHL head coach, but at age 57, he has been a successful coach in juniors, and has coached a lot of talent (Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Luca Sbisa, Seth Jones, Joe Morrow, Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi, Matthew Dumba and the Pens own Derrick Pouliot being some of his players in the past). If Johnston can come in and connect with the Pittsburgh Penguins players in the room, it may breathe new life into a team that's felt stale at times in recent years.

The last coach himself is the poster boy of "inexperienced guy gets a chance and makes most of his message to talented team", of course, when he took a good (but stale) Pens team, implemented his system on top of Michel Therrien's foundation and three months later won the Stanley Cup. A fresh perspective and new voice can be the best difference in the world and hopefully Johnston's message will connect.


For as nice and even-keeled as the Bylsma/ Tony Granato/ Todd Reirden coaching tandem was, showing a lot of fire outwardly wasn't a big priority. That figures to change with the addition of Rick Tocchet to the coaching staff.

"I know I can help them," Tocchet said at the press conference yesterday. "I'm very confident in that. I look forward to that player interaction. I've got the experience to handle it. I've worn different hats on different teams. I've been a first-liner and a fourth-liner. I've had different coaches. I've played in Game 7s."
No one wins anything in a summer press conference, but hearing some fire and passion was a good thing. "They're all about winning," Tocchet said. "And so am I. I want that Cup again."

Taken too far for truculence and playing fighters/goons over real hockey players would be a detriment, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have been too easy to play against too many times recently. They often surrendered the blueline without a fight, allowing opposing teams time and space on the rush. They didn't put a premium on clearing the front of their own net, leaving Marc-Andre Fleury to fend for himself. Stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been targeted and physically attacked with little to no retribution at all. The Pens have lost some fire and toughness over the years, and bringing in an ab guy like Tocchet ought to help.

Saying the right things

It's easier said than done, but the strategy seems to be good. But then again, in a hiring press conference, the strategy always sounds good.

"We want to be a puck-possession team, that's what the playoff teams are," Tocchet said. "The teams holding the puck are the ones getting power plays. They also don't have to play as much defense. We want guys who know how to support the play and can hold onto the puck themselves."

Systematically, Johnston's ideas seem to fit the strengths of the team too. He call his system "ideal" for Crosby and Malkin and will center upon breakouts featuring puck support in order to give the puck carrier more choices. "I think there are more options for the puck-carrier," Johnston said. "Once you stretch the zone, if you do it too quick, the puck-carrier is often isolated, and he then has to chip the puck in, and there's no support."

At the end of the day, though, it doesn't matter what is said in June, it matters how the team plays in April/May and hopefully June. Johnston has near impossible odds and follows a tough act in Bylsma, who for his real or perceived faults still achieved a ton of regular season success and, oh yeah, did win a Stanley Cup. That's all Johnston has to do, and he probably gets two or at most three chances to do so. If the perspective he brings, along with some intensity and fresh perspective all falls in line at just the right time, the Pens have a chance to win it all again.