Mike Johnston is 57 years old and has never been a NHL head coach before.
Which makes his first gig a bit of a doozy.
Johnston, who in June was named Dan Bylsma’s successor as the bench boss in Pittsburgh, inherits a team loaded with expectations. Pittsburgh is the NHL’s only team with two former Hart Trophy winners — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — and is clearly in Stanley Cup-or-bust mode; to show how serious they were on that front, the Pens conducted a major overhaul this offseason.
— Bylsma and GM Ray Shero fired, replaced by Johnston and Jim Rutherford.
— Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik allowed to walk in free agency, Christian Ehrhoff signed.
— James Neal traded to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
The Pens also addressed one of the biggest weaknesses from a year ago — depth — by agreeing to terms with the likes of Steve Downie, Thomas Greiss and Blake Comeau. All of the moves, it seemed, were designed to help turnaround the club’s recent lack of postseason success; last year’s second-round exit at the hands of the Rangers marked the fifth straight time Pittsburgh had fallen short of the Cup Final, and the fourth time in five years the Pens failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
As such, Johnston knows what the stakes are for his first season on the job, and he didn’t bother trying to sugar coat it.
“The bottom-line expectation for me is that, from training camp through the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs,” Johnston said. “The score is relevant but it’s not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have to make us successful in the playoffs.”
The big question for Johnston now is, how will he handle this pressure?
One would think he’ll lean on his assistants for help. Rick Tocchet’s presence will likely loom large, as the longtime NHLer and coach has a wealth of experience and familiarity with players — he was still lacing them up as recently as 2001-02 and actually coached Downie to the most productive season of his NHL career (Downie scored 22 goals and 46 points for Tampa Bay in 2009-10, with Tocchet behind the bench.)
Johnston will also rely on some of his past experiences. He was an assistant for the Canadian Olympic team at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano — a pressure-cooker situation if ever there was one — and has worked on a pair of NHL benches in Vancouver and Los Angeles.
He’ll also look to block out external pressure by keeping intently focused on the goal at hand. And give Johnston credit — he really knows what this Pittsburgh job is all about:
Winning it all.
“This group wants to win,” he said. “They’ve won the Stanley Cup [in 2009], and I believe they want to do it again.”