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New Penguins coach Mike Johnston is an odd choice, but can he deliver?

Photo: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Mike Johnston wasn't the Penguins' first choice for their new head coach, but he is the new man in charge for the Eastern Conference powerhouse.

The stench of a bumbled search process will linger for a while around the Pittsburgh Penguins, but at the end of it all they finally found a coach.

Mike Johnston wasn't the first to be asked to replace Dan Bylsma behind the bench, but the man who spent the past six seasons as head coach and general manager of the wildly successful Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League is an interesting choice. He helped turn those Hawks into a junior hockey juggernaut, mentoring Seth Jones, Ty Rattie, Nino Niederreiter and Pittsburgh's top prospect Derrick Pouliot among others. He also watched as his team won the WHL title and moved on to the Memorial Cup Final in 2013. 

Watching being the operative word there because he ran into a spot of trouble over improper payments that led to him being suspended for the better part of that season and threw the legitimacy of his team's success into question.

Before that, he spent nine seasons in the NHL as an assistant or associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings. Times have changed, but that's relevant experience. And then there's the most noteworthy item on his resume: an assistant spot under Marc Crawford with Team Canada at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano. He also coached at seven World Championships (six times as an assistant and once, 1999, as the head coach) and twice at the World Juniors. 

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Gigs like that give a man man credibility, but they're also dated. They've had him on the outer orbit of NHL head coach discussions for years, but until he was rumored as the frontrunner in Vancouver -- before being passed over in favor of Willie Desjardins, who famously rejected Pittsburgh's low-ball contract offer -- he wasn't regarded as a favorite by anyone to make the transition this season.

But here he is. And whether he was the team's first or third or 10th choice, the only thing that matters now is whether new Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made the right choice.

After all, this isn't Carolina, a laid-back, low-expectation gig taken by another Rutherford favorite, Bill Peters. Or Florida, where Gerard Gallant could lose 45 games without anyone paying him any mind. Or even Vancouver, where hopes are high but expectations are realistic for Desjardins and a team that had its sights significantly lowered after a humbling 2013-14 season.

Pittsburgh is the big leagues. Bylsma won a division title but was canned because that banner doesn't count for squat in a town where it is Stanley Cup or bust. And that's the bar by which Johnston's success will be judged. There's no time for acclimation. When you have two recent MVPs on your bench, the pressure to win is immense and immediate.

So it's more than fair to ask whether someone who's never been a head coach in this league really was the best possible choice to get Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the rest over the wall that's stymied them since 2009. 

That's not just a knock on Johnston. It would have been fair to be equally skeptical of Desjardins or Peters and, more importantly, of Rutherford's entire approach to finding a successor to Bylsma.

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But here we are. And to his credit, Johnston hit his marks in his introductory press conference on Wednesday.

"Puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace," he promised. "I’m more inclined, with the teams I’ve coached through the years, to play a pace game."

That should go over well with the players. Fast hockey is fun hockey. But speed wasn't the problem for the Pens last year. It was a lack of depth, it was defensive softness, it was a complete lack of net presence.

Johnston had that covered as well. "The core group is exactly where I want it," he said. "As far as pieces to go with that group, we're going to have a lot of discussions about that." 

That, he said, will be key to getting the Pens where they need to go.

"My strengths have been building a program, building a template, building an identity," Johnston said. "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. The score is relevant, but it's not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have that will make us successful in the playoffs."

Those are the words that Pens fans have been waiting to hear. We'll know by this time next year whether he was the man to put them into action.

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