CH Column: Hot Seat Is Getting Hotter For Mike Johnston; Or At Least It Should Be

As the seconds ticked down to close out an ugly 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, the boo birds made themselves known at CONSOL Energy Center. And who can blame them?

Thursday night was an abysmal night for the Penguins, who played, by far, their worst game of the season. There were many factors that led to the horrendous loss: ugly turnovers, poor passing, horribly-timed line changes, I could keep going. It got to a point late in the second period where it looked like the Penguins were just kind of skating around. No drive, no forecheck, no pressure, no…nothing. They couldn’t even score late in the third period when they had 1:39 of a 6-on-3 power play. 

That’s embarrassing. 

I could be over exaggerating a little bit, but it sure didn’t look like a team that would scare any playoff contenders. And THAT’S the thing that stands out to me the most. This is a team that has a lot of star power in all phases of the game; a team that is supposed to be built for deep playoff runs annually. It’s a team that on paper, would be considered a Stanley Cup Contender. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford set out to build four scoring lines to add depth behind the top-6 forwards, and it looked like he did the job. He acquired players like Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen, and drafted 18 year-old Dutch-born Daniel Sprong, who had such a good camp that the coaches had no choice but to give him a 9-game look. While the Penguins lost Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff to free agency, there’s always been optimism for the youth in the Penguins system and some of them are finally getting their chance like Brian Dumoulin and newly acquired Adam Clendening, who the Penguins acquired along with Nick Bonino when they sent Brandon Sutter to Vancouver. The bottom line is that while there was a lot of change to the roster, it seemed to be change for the better. There was the anticipation of a high-octane offense, scoring goals at a high level. So, how is this team NOT scary? What is the problem? How is it that you have players like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel in your lineup and can’t score?

After Thursday night, the Penguins stand at 3-4-0. They have been outscored 15-11. While the 2.14 Goals Against Average is impressive and has kept the Penguins in most of the games (and is a tribute to just how good Marc-Andre Fleury has been), they are averaging 1.57 goals per game. That in a word is: abysmal. In their three wins, they’ve outscored opponents 7-3, but in their four losses, they’ve been outscored 12-4. While this season has started off the way it has, and you can call it a small sample size or whatever else to sugarcoat it, but the reality is that you can look back even further to how bad the Penguins have been for almost nine calendar months. They are 18-18-4 since the beginning of February (not including the 1-4 playoff record in the 1st round loss to the Rangers). The power play has been bad for almost an entire calendar year. Since starting last season 18 of 43 on the power play (41.9%), they’ve been 31 of 216 since, a horrid 14.4%. Looking at this, there’s only one conclusion I can come to: Mike Johnston’s job isn’t safe. And it shouldn’t be.

The Penguins are a team that’s in “win now” mode. They wouldn’t have traded away 1st round picks for players like David Perron, who should’ve been credited with an assist on Jason Spezza’s goal for Dallas tonight, if they weren’t trying to piece together a team to win now. Take a look at the core of this team: Crosby is 28, Malkin 29, Fleury 30, Letang 29, and Kessel 28. They aren’t old, but they’re getting near the end of their prime years. The window of Stanley Cup contention with these players is getting smaller and the Penguins have to know that. After the team hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2009, talks of a dynasty started. Unfortunately, the farthest they’ve gone since then is the conference finals, where they were embarrassed by the Boston Bruins in a 4-0 sweep where they barely squeaked out two goals in four games. There has been no dynasty. After another disappointing exit in the 2013-2014 season, everyone knew change was coming.

Enter Mike Johnston. Johnston brought in a new system that at the beginning of last year looked like the Penguins might have found their guy to bring them back to Cup contention. After the first couple of months, the Penguins didn’t look like a scary team anymore and haven’t since then. Quite frankly, I just don’t believe Johnston’s system is the right one for the skill the Penguins have in the lineup. Johnston’s system is all about the team working together in all three zones and about possessing the puck. While it’s always important to possess the puck, emphasizing too much on team play in all three zones can handcuff your stars. In the defensive zone, the forwards can get buried too deep in their own zone making a fast breakout hard to accomplish. The Penguins have a lot of speed in their lineup and could utilize it to attack the opponent fast on the break out and get odd-man rushes. That’s how they scored under Bylsma. They would get the puck out of the zone as fast as possible and the forwards would run north-south fast and put the defense on their heels. It does leave defensive holes and chances for odd-man rushes the other way, but the Penguins scored a lot of goals. AND, it seems that even though there’s an effort to breakout as a team, the Penguins are still giving up odd-man rushes. Terrible line changes can be the cause of that, and they definitely were Thursday night. In the neutral zone under this system, where the team is supposed to be moving together, the team looks lost and is having WAY more trouble entering the offensive zone than it should, and don’t even get me started on the entry while on the power play. In the offensive zone under Johnston’s system, the defensemen are active on the attack at the blue line. While that CAN be a good thing, the way they are executing it is not. Johnston also wants a high volume of shots, so a lot of the times, the defensemen will be the ones shooting the puck hoping for a bounce, rebound, or deflection because, of course, the opposition will defer to defensemen shooting from the point rather than Crosby, Kessel, or Malkin ripping one from the slot or wing. While the volume of shots is high under Johnston (and there have been some games where they’ve struggled to get shots on net), the quality is very low, AND again, he’s handcuffing his stars. Your defensemen should not be shooting the puck more than your money-makers. It’s my belief the Penguins are not a legit threat while Johnston is behind the bench. It’s just not the right system to scare any opponent in contention. It’s a system that does not give the talent on this team the opportunity to shine. 

And I won’t even dive into the personnel decisions by Johnston. Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports has an awesome column on these same frustrations of the Penguins, and he gives some staggering stats on ice time for the players. It’s a rude awakening if you don’t already know. 

I’m not in the room with the players or coaches, and I’m not in the front office with the executives that run this team, but body language on the ice can tell a mighty story, and the story it’s telling me is that this team does not like to play for Johnston. They may not have a vendetta against him, but I don’t think that Crosby is a happy camper right now. Just look at him on the bench. He looks unmotivated. That’s not Sidney Crosby. And that’s not what you want your captain to be. I think Sid showed he can still lead this team by what he did Tuesday night against Florida, but I believe the only way this team makes a legit run at another Cup is with someone else behind the bench. 

The trend has gone on long enough.


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