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Life after Mike Johnston in Portland

Kelly Friesen
Buzzing The Net

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Mike Johnston has left the Winterhawks for the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL.com)

The Portland Winterhawks are set to start a new chapter after Mike Johnston accepted the Pittsburgh Penguins’ head coach opening yesterday.

There’s no question that Johnston's successor has big shoes to fill. He went 231-114-10-10 behind the bench while helping lead the Winterhawks to the WHL finals four times in six seasons.

But because of Johnston’s success, his successor will take over a team with a deep cupboard. All signs point to Portland being among the best clubs in the Dub next year with several high-end players expected to return such as Winnipeg Jets second-rounder Nicolas Petan, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, Vancouver Canucks blueline prospect Anton Cederholm and NHL draft prospect Chase De Leo.

A fifth straight appearance in the finals would be a bold prediction, though. The Winterhawks will lose a large chunk of their core to the pros such as Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot, Minnesota Wild first-rounder Matt Dumba, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Taylor Leier and Nashville Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic.

It’s kind of a bad time to hire a GM-head coach or two separate people. Most of the esteemed hockey minds that went into the offseason looking for work have already accepted positions.

Nonetheless, with billionaire Bill Gallacher as Portland's owner, it’s safe to say he will do whatever it takes to bring in the right guy for the job.

Among those with WHL experience, Malcolm Cameron stands out as an appealing candidate. He led the Regina Pats to an East Division title this past year in his first year as their head coach. He was just recently fired because the Pats’ new ownership group wanted to take a change in direction. It’s worth noting that Dave Struch also lost his job after one year behind the bench with the Saskatoon Blades this year largely because of an ownership change.

The Winterhawks’ assistant general manager under Johnston, Matt Bardsley, has steadily worked his way up the organization’s hockey op’s ladder. There’s undoubtedly an argument that he may be ready to take on the GM role.

Starting as a Hawks area scout, Bardsley became director of player personnel in 2007, under the previous ownership regime. When Gallacher bought the team in 2008-09, Johnston retained Bardsley as an advance scout, and he later became director of hockey operations. When Travis Green left to be a pro minor-league coach, Johnston hired another assistant coach and moved Bardsley into the assistant GM role. (Portland Tribune)

“I’m doing a lot of the same role as before,” he says, “but even more so working closer with Mike on everything, from the administrative to the team to the hockey side. This year, I’ve been doing a lot of scouting, but also spending a lot of time watching our prospects, getting an evaluation of where they’re at, which players we think are ready to make the jump into our lineup next year and getting information from families about their thoughts of coming to Portland.”

Johnston’s legacy

No one can deny Johnston built an excellent program in Portland from the ground up. Since 2009-10, Johnston’s Winterhawks had a winning percentage of 73 per cent (254-88-8-10). In addition, 20 of his players went on to be selected in the NHL entry draft, including six first-round picks.

A major reason for Johnston’s success can be credited to how he was able to recruit several highly regarded American prospects such as De Leo, Paul Bittner, Keegan Iverson and Keoni Texeira. He did this through offering them a chance to stay living in their home country while playing on a very competitive team in the top junior league in the world. It was a strong sell that made them pass up on NCAA scholarships.

All that said, though, Johnston will always have the cloud of the 2012 player-benefit regulations’ suspension hang over his head. No one can deny that he was caught breaking the rules red-handed. It undoubtedly taints and puts into question all of Johnston’s accomplishments, regardless of how little of an impact it may have had on the club’s on-ice success.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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