FONT

MORE STORIES


Mike Johnston says his job now is about rebuilding Portland/



TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Johnston, who will be back behind the bench next season as coach and general manager of the Portland Winterhawks, says the team will need some retooling.Mike Johnston admits to having had mixed emotions as he watched the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks in six games to claim the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

Johnston coached the Penguins until his Dec. 12 dismissal. Under successor Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh swept through the playoffs to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup crown.

“I was torn,” says Johnston, named in May as the Winterhawks’ general manager and head coach. “I was happy for the staff. It’s a phenomenal group. I was really excited for the players.

“But Pittsburgh goes on that type of run and you’re that close to being a part of it — yeah, you’re torn. There’s a part of you that thinks, ‘If I’d had another few weeks or months, I could have turned the corner with that team.’ But those decisions are made, and you can’t control them.”

It wasn’t as if the Penguins were failing under Johnston’s watch. Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 after losing its first three games.

“We were getting better,” he says. After Sullivan’s hiring, the Penguins “made several changes to the roster, which I really liked — more speed, more youth. I like the direction they headed, and they had a phenomenal run down the stretch.”

Johnston was hired by Pittsburgh after the 2013-14 season, following six years as GM/head coach in Portland (2008-14). He had taken a woebegone franchise and presided over a run to four straight Western Hockey League championship series, including the 2013 title and a Memorial Cup appearance.

Pittsburgh went 43-27-12 during Johnston’s first season, but — beset by injuries — fell to the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, with four of the five games going to overtime. General manager Jim Rutherford, evidently unhappy with the Penguins’ early-season play, pulled the plug on Johnston 28 games into the 2015-16 campaign.

Johnston’s record through his season-plus in Pittsburgh was 58-37-15, meaning his club lost only 39 percent of the time.

“I knew full well coming in it was, ‘We’re taking at shot at the Stanley Cup every year’ for the next few years,” says Johnston, 59. “That’s their standard.

“I don’t have a bad thing to say about the Penguins. It’s a first-class organization. I enjoyed the experience. I feel I achieved a lot. I learned a lot. No regrets on the whole experience. That’s exactly the way I wanted to coach. That’s exactly the way I wanted to run things.

“Every experience I’m in, I try to grow from. If I don’t get to where I want to be, I’m more motivated. I’ll use the Pittsburgh experience to help me do a better job in Portland.”

After he was fired by Pittsburgh, Johnston — still due a season and a half of salary by the Penguins — retreated with his wife, Myrna, to their offseason home in Blaine, Washington.

“I wanted to take five or six months and look at options,” he says, including whether he wanted to be an NHL assistant, or a head coach at a lower level. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to be a head coach.

After the Hawks fired Johnston’s successor, Jamie Kompon, in April, team president Doug Piper reached out to Johnston.

“He’s the first guy you think of,” Piper says. “We didn’t have any idea if we could get him, but we certainly wanted him. To get him is a coup. It’s incredible to have him back.”

Johnston took more than a month to accept the job. He’d been offered another WHL job (Vancouver) and one in Europe.

“Once Doug called, I put a halt to the other things,” he says.

Now, Johnston is back in the saddle, trying to recreate magic with a Hawks team that took a plunge last season. Kompon’s first team reached the Western Conference finals, but last year’s Hawks — with no true playmakers — lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The Hawks have been hurt by major WHL sanctions (for minor recruiting violations under Johnston’s watch) that cost the club its first five draft picks in 2012 and each of its first-round selections from 2013-15. There is little veteran firepower returning for next year’s team.

“If you go on a run like we went on, you’re bound to have a bit of a downturn,” Johnston says. “You’re going to have a couple of years where you’re going to rebuild.

“Next year, we’ll be building around young guys, getting players through the draft and listing. We’re not where we were in 2008, but we’re starting out again on another cycle.”

The Hawks will draw on their history of success and Johnston’s solid reputation in trying to lure talent to Portland.

“Mike shines on the recruiting side, which is where we need a lot of help,” Piper says.

WHL teams get players through the bantam and import drafts, but also must compete with the U.S. Hockey League, the British Columbia Hockey League and college hockey.

“Recruiting is a big part of what we do now,” Johnston says. “It didn’t used to be as big a priority, but it has almost gotten to the level where it is at in colleges. You draft and list players, and then you have to meet with the families, sell them on your program and talk to them about your league.

“From the time you draft the players (at 14 or 15) until they play for you (usually at 16 or 17), you have to have a relationship formed. But we have one of the better packages in North American in terms of hockey, schooling and development that is easier to sell.”

Johnston says the Hawks have had 35 players signed to pro contracts in the past eight years, “more than any team in North America. We produce players.”

Portland has listed 15 players who have declared their intention to play college hockey after high school the next three years. Johnston will try to persuade them to instead sign with the Hawks, as he once did with NHL standout Ryan Johansen.

“These kids are all difference-makers,” Johnston says. “If I can get one or two to come to our program instead of college, it’s a big plus. But it has to be a win-win. We don’t anti-recruit. Many of the college programs are great. But for certain players, our route is better for them.”

Portland will build around 17-year-old forward Cody Glass — “a potential NHL first-round draft pick,” Johnston says — and defensemen Caleb Jones and Keoni Texeira next season. Right wing Keegan Iverson will return as an over-age player. Forwards Paul Bittner and Dominic Turgeon, defenseman Jack Dougherty and goalie Adin Hill have signed contracts with NHL teams. “It’s possible one of them could come back to us,” Johnston says, “but I don’t expect it.”

Johnston will spend the summer talking to prospects, scouting, recruiting and preparing for the Aug. 20 start of training camp in Portland.

“We’ll have some growing pains next year,” he says. “Fans are going to see an up-tempo, attacking type of team, but there will be mistakes because of our youth. You can live with that if you know you’ll have success down the road.

“I have no illusions that we’ll enter next season as a top team. It’s not going to happen. But by January, we could be a good team. By (the following) September we could be a really good team. If we build it the right way, we can start to have another great four- or five-year run.”

Johnston has added an assistant coach in Oliver David, who had previously served as an assistant GM and assistant coach in the USHL and was a head coach in the North American Hockey League.

“He’ll be a really good coach and recruiter for us,” Johnson says.

And Johnston has promoted Kyle Gustafson — the Centennial High grad who has been a member of the Hawks’ staff since 2004 — as his lead assistant.

“Kyle is in position to take over the program at some point,” Johnston says. “If a change occurs, he’ll be the guy to take over, if he doesn’t get something else before that. He has worked his way up, deserves it and is ready for it.”

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Twitter: @kerryeggers

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine