In news that has been anticipated ever since Jim Rutherford publicly called out his head coach, the Penguins announced today that Mike Johnston was relieved of his head coaching duties. Along with Johnston, Gary Agnew has been sent packing. Mike Sullivan, who had been coaching the AHL team in Wilkes-Barre, has been promoted behind the bench in Pittsburgh, with Rick Tocchet and Jaques Martin rounding out his staff.
Getting rid of Johnston has become a much needed move as the team continued to flounder and his personnel choices left much to be desired. Sullivan inherits the challenge of attempting to jump start the offense and get more out of the blue line, which has been arguably the Pens' biggest issue despite currently sitting 6th in the NHL with 2.32 GA/gm.
While the move is a step in the right direction, the decision to retain Tocchet is worrisome as the front office doubles down on the man they hired before the head coach during the last coaching change. Tocchet has overseen a power play that has badly underachieved at times during his time in Pittsburgh, despite star power and talent that would be the envy of the rest of the league. Despite players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel among others, the Penguins currently rank just 27th in the league with a 15.6% conversion rate, though the unit has rebounded some since a dreadful start to the season. Regardless, Tocchet has shown nowhere near enough to be immune from the fate handed to Johnston and Agnew, and his inclusion saddles yet another head coach with an assistant that cost Pittsburgh their top two choices during the 2014 offseason.
Expectations will be high on Mike Sullivan to turn around the Penguins' season. The Baby Pens are currently first in the Atlantic Division and 3rd in the AHL with an 18-5-0 record. It will be imperative that Sullivan makes the bold moves a coaching change necessitates like benching Rob Scuderi and figuring out how to manage an effective transition game with a limited defensive corp. The Penguins have dropped to 19th in the league with a 48.3 score-adjusted CF% after finishing 6th in the league last year at 53.1% despite the improved forward depth. Much of the blame can likely be placed on the inaction of the front office in addressing the blue line despite the talented defensemen that have left the organization since Jim Rutherford took over.
Now with Johnston gone, the heat will begin to ramp up on the GM's seat as Rutherford needs to make sure to give Sullivan the tools to succeed in turning the team around. If Sullivan can figure out how to get more from the current blueline, or better optimize the lineup in ways Johnston was incapable or unwilling to do, and/or Rutherford can fix the issue via trade, Pittsburgh is likely to see better results on the ice. If not, the drastic moves taken during the 2014 are likely to turn out to be a colossal failure and serve as a warning for the next man in charge, whoever he may be, that needs to hire a new General Manager and Head Coach this offseason.