The Pittsburgh Penguins opened up the Mike Sullivan era in much the same way they ended the Mike Johnston era: by failing to produce offensively. Pittsburgh was defeated 4-1 by the Washington Capitals in the Penguins’ first game since firing Johnston and hiring Sullivan as their coach.
The success or failure of the Penguins’ new coach may ultimately determine how we view Johnston’s time in Pittsburgh. Was he a victim of a fading group of stars and a cap-pressed team that made mistakes with their roster construction, or was Johnston the reason they slipped from being an elite team for the first time in nearly a decade?
Since we can’t look into a crystal ball and see how Sullivan will do with the Pens, we have to look back — not just at Johnston’s work, but also at how he compares to the man he replaced: Dan Bylsma.
Early success wasn’t sustained
Johnston was hired after Pittsburgh’s ownership fired general manager Ray Shero and new GM Jim Rutherford canned Stanley Cup-winning coach Bylsma. At first, it looked like a good decision. Through the first two months of Johnston’s tenure, the Penguins went 16-5-2 and posted a plus-18 goal differential at even strength. Following the hot start, however, Pittsburgh won 27 of its remaining 59 games. Their dominant power play during the first two months, which scored 24 goals in 23 games, only scored 25 goals in those final 59 games.
Johnston’s first season behind the bench still resulted in a postseason berth, as the Penguins slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season by beating the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL’s worst team. But they were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers. Still, there was reason to believe in Johnston. While Pens fell significantly in the standings after the first two months, they were an above-average possession team in January, February and March, despite injuries to blueliners Christian Ehrhoff and Kris Letang.
The acquisition this past summer of Phil Kessel was expected to boost Pittsburgh’s offensive output, especially on the power play. Adding Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen was supposed to improve their depth scoring and puck possession.
None of that happened. At the time of Johnston’s firing, Pittsburgh ranked 25th in even-strength scoring (41 goals), 27th on the power play (15.6 percent) and 22nd in Corsi for percentage.
Was Rutherford wrong to fire Bylsma and hire Johnston? Or was Johnston dealt a bad hand? What went wrong?
Crosby’s slide under Johnston
The Pens’ numbers during the Bylsma era were magnificent. They finished either first or second in the division every season he was behind the bench. From 2009-2014, Pittsburgh was the fourth-best team in the NHL in goals for percentage (53.5 percent), 10th in Corsi for percentage (51.7 percent) and fourth in number of power-play goals (239).
Considering how successful the club was under Bylsma, the natural reaction to Johnston’s firing from many Penguins fans was that Pittsburgh never should have parted ways with Bylsma in the first place. They may be right, but comparing the two isn’t really fair.
Both coaches have had the blessing of Sidney Crosby, but Johnston’s version of Crosby is not the same as Bylsma’s version:
Sid has still produced on the power play, but his even-strength numbers have dropped significantly. Could this be a product of Johnston’s coaching? Possibly. It could also be age catching up with Crosby. Not that 28 is really old in an absolute sense, but it is around that age that many scorers start to see a slip in their production. Crosby also very often did not have his favorite Bylsma-era linemate during Johnston’s time as head coach. When the Penguins’ superstar center played alongside Chris Kunitz between 2008-09 and 2013-2014, their even-strength goals for percentage was a mind-blowing 68.3 percent. Crosby spent 64.0 percent of his minutes during those five seasons with Kunitz.
Since Johnston took over, Crosby skated with Kunitz for only 48.5 percent of his minutes, and Kunitz’s play has begun to fade, as you might expect for a 36-year-old winger. By league standards, they have still been quite productive, posting a goals for percentage of 59.6, but they are not as dominant as during Bylsma’s days.
If we see the Penguins’ No. 1 center return to dominance under Sullivan, the finger will be pointed at Johnston as the reason for Crosby’s decline in scoring at even strength. But it seems there was more at play than just coaching. It also seems that Crosby’s disappointing production (a phrase which is astounding to write, since he led the NHL in points per game last season) played a significant role in the team’s underwhelming results.
Shero and Rutherford’s role in Johnston’s failure
One of the most glaring reasons for the Penguins’ struggles this season has been their struggling defense core. During Bylsma’s final five seasons in Pittsburgh, his most used defensemen were Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen andPaul Martin.
Orpik and Niskanen now play for the Capitals, while Martin is handling blue-line duties in San Jose. Scuderi was re-signed by Shero — a truly head-scratching move at the time, since somewhat corrected by trading him to Chicago for Trevor Daley (more on that in a bit). Rutherford traded a promising young puck mover in Simon Despres to Anaheim for average middle-pairing defender Ben Lovejoy. The Pens’ GM also acquired St. Louis castaway Ian Cole. Neither has produced anywhere close to the results Bylsma consistently received from Niskanen and Martin.
Rutherford hoped Pittsburgh’s high draft picks Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliotcould fill the void, but neither played more than 50 NHL games during Johnston’s time. After firing Johnston, the Pens’ GM even admitted he did not do enough to bolster the blue line for his coach.
Not only did Rutherford acknowledge the defensive core’s shortcomings, he also made a move immediately after firing Johnston that should help Sullivan’s cause. The Penguins acquired offensive-minded defenseman Daley in exchange for stay-at-home defender Scuderi. While Daley has his issues in his own zone, he ranked 10th among NHL defensemen last season in even-strength points per 60 minutes, with 1.21, just ahead of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Scuderi managed 0.38 even-strength points per 60 minutes last season and has struggled mightily in puck possession throughout his time in Pittsburgh, under both Johnston and Bylsma.
Up front, Shero put Rutherford in a difficult position from the start by re-signing Kunitz and Dupuis to handcuffing contracts despite both players being on the other side of 34. They combined to take up around $7.5 million in cap room, which could have been spent to keep Niskanen.
Very few of Shero’s draft picks were hits, forcing Rutherford to fill out the roster with free-agent signings. Winger Beau Bennett and Maatta are the only NHL regulars on the roster picked by Shero. And both have yielded disappointing results in their young careers thus far.
The shortcomings of both GMs, however, do not completely excuse Johnston. Rutherford added one of the best goal-scoring wingers in the NHL from the past five seasons in Kessel, who has nine goals thus far, but only two on the power play. Forward Nick Bonino — a solid NHL producer in Vancouver and Anaheim — has only three goals in 27 games. Scoring winger David Perron, another Rutherford pickup, has just four in 28 games.
When so many proven players are underachieving, the coach is always the man to take the fall.
Will Pittsburgh turn things around without Johnston?
Considering the high-level talent on the Penguins’ roster, it seems unlikely they will continue to shoot 6.3 percent at even strength (the seventh-lowest rate in the NHL) as a team for the remainder of the season. While their power play has been abysmal, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel will not continue to have the third-lowest power-play shooting percentage in the league.
But the puck-possession woes will have to be turned around before Pittsburgh can make any actual noise. Maybe that means more ice time for young defenseman Adam Clendening, who has a 51.7 Corsi for percentage during limited minutes. Maybe it means playing Crosby with Bennett more often, as the two have combined for a 51.2 Corsi for percentage when together, while Crosby is a mere 45.1 percent when away from Bennett. Maybe the addition of Daley will spur improvements from the blue line.
Whatever tweaks Sullivan makes, it is clear he has an uphill battle. It is also clear that while Johnston wasn’t maximizing the talent on the Penguins’ roster, he didn’t have many of the advantages Bylsma did during his run in Pittsburgh. The team’s struggles cannot all be laid at his feet.