Kuzma: Calm, cool Johnston the Anti-Torts
Interviewed by Vancouver last week, he could fit here as head man or associate coach
John Stevens was in a Stanley Cup parade on Monday. Willie Desjardins was coaching in the Calder Cup, Dan Bylsma was becoming the hiring favourite in Florida and Mike Johnston was at a Hockey USA evaluation camp in Colorado Springs.
As a highly successful Portland Winterhawks general manager and coach — and former Vancouver Canucks assistant and associate coach for six seasons — Johnston is wondering how and when the new management hierarchy will replace the fired John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan. After interviewing well last week, Johnston is in the Canucks mix because he meets the criteria of being a successful bench boss who places a premium on uptempo play. And general manager Jim Benning doesn’t want a screamer, so a strong Anti-Torts candidate is going to get a look.
Stevens is of obvious interest because of his work as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings and as a former Philadelphia Flyers head coach. Desjardins has impressed as a WHL coach and general manager, Dallas Stars associate and bench boss of the Texas Stars. Bylsma was of some interest to the Canucks, but interviewed strongly in Florida last week and could be named the Panthers new coach this week.
Johnston could fit here as the main man or an associate coach. His body of work is considerable and he understands the dynamics of coaching in the Canadian market.
Johnston has guided Canada’s under-18 world entry, has two world junior gold medals, three Spengler Cup golds, two golds among four world championship medals and was an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 1998 Olympics.
Johnston was with the Canucks when Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi formed the famed West Coast Express — arguably the NHL’s best line over a three-year period, especially in 2002-03 when combining for 119 goals — and he also coached president of hockey operations Trevor Linden for four NHL seasons. In a tandem with Marc Crawford — who is also under consideration to return to the Canucks — Johnston was the soft-spoken architect of building a contender in Vancouver.
However, if you’re looking for Johnston to beat the drum about his readiness to return to the NHL, forget about it. Even though he has 10 years in the bigs, including two with the Kings as an assistant coach, he relayed on Monday that we wanted to be respectful of the Canucks’ selection process and wouldn’t comment until it played out. But his most recent and consistent accomplishments can do the talking of why he merits consideration.
Four straight WHL championship final appearances by the Winterhawks — and a Memorial Cup runner-up showing in 2013 despite franchise sanctions and a suspension to Johnston in November of 2012 — proved the club’s resiliency and resolve. In the cyclic world of junior hockey, Johnston’s ability to teach and motivate with an even-keeled demeanour hasn’t gone unnoticed.
If there’s going to be a premium placed on fast-tracking impressionable prospects, then developing Ryan Johansen (Columbus), Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota), Seth Jones (Nashville), Tyler Wotherspoon (Calgary), Sven Baertschi (Calgary), Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg) and Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh) is significant. Johansen is coming off a breakout 33-goal season with the Blue Jackets, Jones made a smooth transition to the tough demands of the NHL blue-line and Pouliot is the first-round draft prospect the Canucks coveted in a failed trade deadline package for Ryan Kesler. Petan had 81 goals and 233 points in his last two WHL seasons and the Delta native credits Johnston for giving a diminutive 5-foot-9 centre reason to believe he can play in the NHL.
“It’s not all about offence — he taught me a lot about the defensive game,” Petan said Monday. “He made me the player I am today — a more complete player and one of the hardest workers on the ice — because he’s a teacher and that describes him perfectly. He’s not much of a yeller and a screamer. He’s all about professionalism and he’s very calm and cool and he knows when to say the right things.”
Johnston has only worn the white NHL hat — the assistant or associate coach who often acts as the calmer voice of reason — but Petan has seen the stricter side of the Winterhawks bench boss. It was more body language than foul language.
“You could tell when he was unhappy with the team and disappointed and he doesn’t even have to tell us,” added Petan. “He has that walk and when he lays it down, he lays it down firm and gets us going right away.”
Early in the 2012-13 season, everybody’s mettle was tested. The WHL levied a series of sanctions against the Winterhawks in late November. Cited for a series a player benefit violations over the previous four seasons — reportedly paying for parents’ expenses to see their kids play in Portland — the club was suspended from the first five rounds of the bantam draft and had to forfeit first-round picks the next four years. The Winterhawks were also fined $200,000 and Johnston was suspended for the balance of that season.
With Travis Green elevated into a head-coaching role, Portland could have packed it in or pressed on. Green did such an admirable job he was hired to coach the Utica Comets this season. Johnston returned and guided the Winterhawks to another WHL final.
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