Profiles in Excellence: Eddie Johnston

Eddie Johnston: Rank #43 – 17 points

Coaching Experience: Chicago Blackhawks, 1979-80; Pittsburgh Penguins, 1980-1983, 1993-1997

Regular Season W-L-T-OL: 266-251-79; Playoff W-L: 25-28

Smythe Division Title: 1979-80; Northeast Division Titles: 1993-94, 1995-96

Playoff Appearances: 1980-1982, 1994-1996

Eddie Johnston is tied with Claude Ruel for 43rd place and, like Ruel, is very much a company man. Johnston (with a brief exception during the late 1980s) has been a fixture with the Pittsburgh Penguins since 1980—serving variously as head coach, general manager and assistant general manager.

Before he took up coaching, Johnston played fifteen seasons in the NHL as a goaltender. Johnston was a solid but unspectacular net-minder who has gone down in history as being the last NHL goaltender to play every minute of every game during an entire season. During the 1963-64 season Johnston played all 4200 minutes—and he did so without a facemask. When asked in a 2008 interview how was he able to tend goal without a mask? He answered with self-deprecating terseness, “stupidity.”

In truth he was courageous and tough. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings he was hit in the head with the puck and knocked comatose for several days. In another game against the Chicago Blackhawks he was hit high atop his forehead by a Bobby Hull slap-shot resulting in blood and stitches. He later said that if the shot had struck him any lower he would have been killed. Nevertheless he came back and resumed his net-minding duties; not donning a facemask until the late 1960s.

Johnston tended goal for the Boston Bruins during their lean years from 1962-1967 before being paired with Gerry Cheevers during their glory years from 1967-1973. Johnston was a staunch presence for the Bruins: serving as mentor to the rookie Bobby Orr and other young players while helping the Bruins win two Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

After 1973 Johnston was traded from Boston and spent the last five seasons of his career bouncing between the Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues, and the Chicago Blackhawks before retiring as a player in 1978.

Johnston went into coaching immediately, leading the Hawks AHL farm team where he did quite well. When Hawks coach and GM Bob Pulford decided to yield the coaching reins (for the time being) to focus on his GM duties, he picked Johnston to succeed him—the first of fourteen head coaches to serve under Pulford during his infamous reign in Chicago.

Again Johnston excelled, leading the Hawks to a winning season and a divisional title in his NHL coaching debut; taking the Hawks farther in the playoffs (leading the team to a second round elimination) than Pulford had done in his first two seasons as coach.

Despite all this, Johnston was let go by the Hawks and it was then that he began his long-standing relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins when he became their head coach in 1980. Johnston’s first coaching stint with the Penguins was the roughest spot of his coaching career; suffering three straight losing seasons including a last place finish in 1982-83. Despite this he was promoted to be the Penguins GM—a post he held until 1988. The Penguins fortunes did not improve which proved to be a blessing in disguise.

On June 9, 1984, Johnston picked Mario Lemieux as the number one draft pick in the NHL draft. Decades later Johnston would tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, “We were getting a guy who comes along once in a lifetime. Mellon Arena would be a parking lot now if not for Mario. There would be no hockey in Pittsburgh.”

Despite Lemieux’s greatness, the Penguins remained moribund and in 1989 Johnston became the GM of the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes). His three year stint there was undistinguished but in many ways Johnston’s heart was still in Pittsburgh because it was his trade of Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to Pittsburgh that helped the Penguins win their first two Stanley Cups in franchise history in 1991 and 1992.

To this day the trade is damned by hockey experts as being one of the great boners in NHL trading history. It also marked the beginning of the end for the struggling Whalers franchise. In 1997 they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina.

When Scotty Bowman left the Penguins to coach the Detroit Red Wings, Johnston was chosen to succeed him. This time he did much better as Penguins head coach, leading the Penguins to three winning seasons, two divisional titles, and a third round elimination by the Florida Panthers in the 1996 playoffs—the closest Johnston ever came to coaching a team to the Stanley Cup finals.

What were the main strengths of Johnston’s teams? Ironically his teams were stronger offensively than defensively (especially in the 1990s when he coached Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr). The only time Johnston coached a team that finished in the top five in defense was in his first season with Chicago. Thanks to an All-Star effort by the legendary Tony Esposito, Johnston’s Hawks finished fifth in defense. After that Johnston’s teams usually brought up the rear in defense and penalty-killing.

Johnston’s teams’ greatest asset was their power-play goal production. When it came to generating power-play offense Johnston was the best of his era and quite possibly of all time. His teams averaged 1.04 power-play goals per game. No other NHL coach since 1967 has surpassed that figure.

Naturally one could say that since he had Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr on his teams it explains his team’s stellar power-play goal production. It certainly does during his second coaching stint with the Penguins but even during his first coaching stint with Pittsburgh in the 1980s his Penguins were superlative on the power-play. From 1980-1983 the Penguins always finished in the top five in the NHL in power-play offense; finishing second in 1980-81 and leading the league during the 1981-82 Season. Rick Kehoe, Paul Gardner, and Pat Boutette were his big guns on the power-play during that time period.

In 1997 Johnston yielded the coaching duties to become assistant Penguins GM to Craig Patrick and, later, Ray Shero.

Since 2009 Johnston has semi-retired but he still has offices at the Penguins organization—which is only fitting because Johnston helped make the Penguins a championship franchise and an enduring presence in the Pittsburgh sports scene.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.