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'Whirlwind' leads to 'almost a dream job' for Mike Johnston, new Penguins coach

Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, who won his second Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player Tuesday, hails from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Mike Johnston, named Tuesday as the Penguins' head coach, was reared in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, like Cole Harbour a suburb of Halifax, the provincial capital city.

"I grew up across the bridge, about a mile from where Sid grew up, but we're separated by age," Johnston, 57, said Tuesday from the Pittsburgh airport, where he was en route to Philadelphia for Friday's NHL draft. "I don't know him at all, but we have a hometown in common. It's a unique situation."

A couple of days after losing out to Willie Desjardins in a bid to be named head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Johnston -- the Winterhawks' general manager and head coach the past six years -- took over the reins in Pittsburgh of one of the NHL's strongest franchises.

Johnston flew to Pittsburgh for an interview on Saturday, "and things moved quickly from there," he said. "Sometimes these things happen after a few conversations. (Pittsburgh officials) had done their homework. Things happened so fast, it was almost like a whirlwind."

The cupboard Johnston inherits is anything but bare. Pittsburgh ruled the Metropolitan Division with a 51-24-7 record and 109 points, second-most in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. The Penguins won their first-round playoff matchup with Columbus 4-2, then lost to the New York Rangers in seven games in the second round.

"They have a real good core of players, guys like Crosby, (center) Evgani Malkin and (defenseman) Kris Letang," said Johnston, who signed a three-year contract with the Penguins. "Pittsburgh is a quality organization with very high standards. I've been a career coach, and these are the things you always aspire to do. It's almost a dream job to me."

Johnston replaces Dan Bylsma, who was fired on June 6, three weeks after the Rangers had come from a 3-1 deficit to claim their playoff series with the Penguins.

Bylsma compiled a 252-117-32 regular-season record in five seasons and won the NHL coach of year award in 2010-11. He had taken over for Michael Therrien at midseason in 2008-09 and guided Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup title.

But the Penguins had advanced beyond the second round only once since then, and reports were that Bylsma had a falling out with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which Crosby denied.

"They've had some great teams, but expectations are high with a team like this, and they should be," Johnston said. "Our team that will be a (championship) threat next year."

Johnston hopes to forge an instant bond with Crosby, who at 26 is already on a clear path to the Hall of Fame. In his first full season without a major injury since 2010, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL draft won the league scoring title with 104 points, including 36 goals.

"Any time you get a chance to work with the best players in the game, you learn so much as a coach," Johnston said. "That's certainly the case with Sid. He's the leader, the key guy in the locker room."

The Penguins will be in good hands with Johnston, who formerly served as chief assistant and associate head coach with the Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

There were several elements that led to the renaissance of the Winterhawks, who were the laughingstock of the WHL when he arrived in Portland in 2008. Owner Bill Gallacher, president Doug Piper and Matt Bardsley, now director of hockey operations, all deserve credit for helping restore credibility to a once-proud franchise.

But Johnston was the fulcrum of the movement, making the Hawks a winner almost immediately, guiding the club to the WHL finals in each of the past four seasons, including a league title and Memorial Cup appearance in 2012-13.

"I'm super happy for Mike," Piper said. "He is an NHL-caliber head coach, no doubt in my mind. He proved that over the six years he has been here."

Johnston would never have left for another job in major junior hockey, but when the NHL beckoned, he couldn't say no.

"It's tough to leave Portland," Johnston said. "What we had as far as players, coaches, staff -- that's a tough thing to leave. We had such a phenomenal core. Everybody did his job and loved to be there. "These opportunities don't come along very often. It'll be tough to say good-bye. At the same time, we have some roots in Portland now. It could be a place where I settle some day."

Piper leaves Thursday for Philadelphia and the NHL draft. Gallacher will be there, too. The search to replace Johnston will begin there. Piper said he will be looking for someone to run the operation in the same manner as the guy who is leaving.

"He'll be hard to replace in some ways, but he has left us a tremendous system, one that we've bought into," Piper said. "It's the way the Winterhawks want to play. Our search will be for someone who understands this type of hockey. We want to hire somebody who fits into the structure we've built here for the last six years."

Piper said he would like to hire someone who, like Johnston did, can fill the dual role of GM and head coach. "We like that formula, if there is a person with the skill set to do both," Piper said.

The Hawks' president said there is no rush to name Johnston's replacement.

"I'd rather find the right person than be in a hurry," he said. "It's important to have someone in place, settled and ready for the start of training camp on Aug. 20.

"There are a lot of good candidates, which is really gratifying to us. Portland and the Winterhawks are attractive (to candidates). We're at the top of the game at this level. Bill Gallacher is an owner who provides the resources to be successful. And Portland is a great city. People want to live here."

Piper said a possible candidate is Travis Green, the former assistant who did a superb job filling in for a suspended Johnston during the 2012-13 Memorial Cup season. Green left to serve as head coach for the American Hockey League Utica (N.Y.) Comets this season. After an 0-8 start, the Comets finished 35-32-5-4 but failed to make the playoffs.

Johnston was looking to bring Green to Pittsburgh as an assistant, but Green says he has decided against going to the Penguins' bench.

Johnston is a premier X's and O's hockey coach, but the thing I appreciated most was the way he handled himself with such class during his time in Portland. It was never more evident than during the heavy-handed sanctions laid down by the WHL in 2012-13 for what were relatively minor violations related to player benefits.

Besides Johnston's suspension -- which meant he couldn't even be at the arena during Winterhawk games through the season -- Portland was fined a record $200,000 and forced to forfeit its first five draft picks in 2013 and its first-round picks through 2017.

The injustice was striking, but Johnston took it like a man, quietly watching as Green took the team he assembled and brought them to the Memorial Cup -- the Promised Land of North American junior hockey. The suspension had to hurt him deeply, but he soldiered on through the exodus, helping from afar as much as he could.

And through his leadership, even with the losses of hugely important draft picks, the Hawks remained a championship contender, and appear as if they will continue to do so.

Johnston will continue to be a sounding board for the Hawks in the short term. He'll convene with Gallacher and Piper in Philadelphia and will offer advice in hiring his successor.

"I'll give them my two cents worth," he said. "The key thing for me is, if you leave a program for whatever reason, part of your legacy is what goes on after you leave. If the team continues to thrive at the same level, you've done a pretty good job. If it falls back, then you haven't.

"Over the next few weeks, if there is anything I can do in the process to help Portland move along in hiring a coach or recruiting players, I want to help them."

I'd have expected nothing less than that from Johnston, whose contributions to the sporting landscape in our city won't soon be forgotten. Portland's loss is Pittsburgh's gain.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers