Mike Johnston an easy scapegoat amid bigger issues for Penguins

James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports

After only 110 regular-season games behind the Pittsburgh Penguins bench, Mike Johnston learned the hard way that NHL coaches are generally the first casualties when a team fails to live up to expectations.

That was the decision rendered by general manager Jim Rutherford on Saturday, who announced a coaching change after watching his team lose Friday in a shootout to the Los Angeles Kings, falling to 15-10-3 through 28 games, and 58-37-3 overall under Johnston.

Enter Mike Sullivan, who's guided the Penguins' AHL affiliate to an impressive 18-5-0 record this season. On top of years serving as an assistant around the league, Sullivan brings 164 games of NHL head coaching experience with the Boston Bruins to the table, albeit time served a decade ago. (There was also a brief stint with the Vancouver Canucks in lieu of a suspended John Tortorella).

Any way you slice it, there's no denying the Penguins have looked ... off so far this season. Much was expected of the offense in light of Phil Kessel's acquisition last summer, as well as other additions that gave Johnston a very healthy measure of depth up front.

Yet despite generating a sixth-ranked 30.6 shots per game, the Penguins offense sputtered early, with only three teams averaging fewer than their 2.36 goals. Put simply, the stars aren't performing up to their usual standards, save Kris Letang, who could be sidelined for a couple weeks with an unspecified upper-body injury.

Penguins points per game

Player 2015-16 Career
Evgeni Malkin 0.92 1.18
Sidney Crosby 0.68 1.33
Phil Kessel 0.61 0.77
Kris Letang 0.56 0.58
Chris Kunitz 0.39 0.69

Yes, cold sticks are an issue, and one would expect the goals will start pouring in sooner rather than later as players revert back to normal output levels. Other changes will be made aswell, with Daniel Sprong likely to be given an opportunity to infuse some youthful energy into the lineup, correcting an error in Johnston's judgement that was called out by Rutherford.

That won't matter for the deposed head coach, of course, who will no doubt be looking at Friday's defensive pairings as the big reason why he's out of work less than two weeks before Christmas.

For as much work as Rutherford put in solidifying the forward ranks, Pittsburgh's defense is a mess, even with a healthy Letang.

Under the GM's watch, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff were allowed to walk as unrestricted free agents, and a promising young talent in Simon Despres was somewhat inexplicably flipped to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Ben Lovejoy. At the same time, top prospect Derrick Pouliot, who thrived under Johnston when they were both in the WHL, hasn't been able to grab a spot on the NHL roster.

What remains, then, is the top six listed above, which, to be frank, is not a blue line that any NHL team is ever going to win with. Sure, the Penguins played a relatively conservative style under Johnston, but his hand was forced in that direction based on the tools he had to deploy defensively. That the Penguins - backed by strong play in net by Marc-Andre Fleury - were able to limit opponents to a sixth-ranked 2.32 goals per game this season is actually to Johnston's credit.

In the end, deficiencies on the blue line neutered what should be a potent offense, and those personnel issues should fall harder on the GM than the coach.

Mike Johnston an easy scapegoat amid bigger issues for Penguins
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