By Adam Vingan
Late Tuesday night, after the Washington Capitals lost 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues in their first game under new coach Dale Hunter, the team made another coaching change. Assistant coach Bob Woods was let go and Jim Johnson replaced him on the bench.
Like Hunter, Johnson is a former Cap and the two played together during Johnson’s three-year stay in Washington from 1993-1996. Hunter wanted a familiar voice on the bench and he believes that Johnson’s work with the defense will provide that.
“I knew Jimmy,” Hunter said. “I played with him and he’s a student of the game. I think he played almost 800 and some games. When we were playing together, we used to talk a lot of hockey. Some guys are just watching the games, we were talking the game together. I know he’s a hockey guy and definitely will help our [defense].”
Johnson said he received a call from Hunter Monday while he was back in the United States to sell his house in Scottsdale, Arizona. Johnson had been coaching with HC Lugano in Switzerland’s National Leagua A.
“I kind of knew something might be up, but I didn’t really know until really yesterday,” Johnson said. “We [he and Caps general manager George McPhee] got a deal done and I got on a flight last night from Phoenix and flew all night to get here this morning.”
In North America, Johnson most recently spent time with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in 2009-10 as an assistant coach with the NHL club as well as a short stint as head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals. Johnson believes in teaching, saying that “I don’t think you’ve really become a coach until you learn to be a teacher,” which is a fitting observation, considering that Johnson makes coaching really seem like a science.
“I’m a guy that really focuses on the details and making sure that I understand the fundamental skill progressions of those details to help these guys get better,” he said.
Johnson said that he and Hunter “speak the same language” in regards to how they believe the game has to be played to win at this level: with an emphasis on establishing the forecheck, neutral zone play, playing without the puck and attacking offensively by combining all of the aforementioned attributes.
“I’m a real pressure guy,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you win at this game without pressuring. I’m a guy that really believes you’ve got to play a 200-foot game. It’s a speed game today. It’s not only your forecheck speed. It’s your backcheck speed, it’s your skating speed, it’s your transition speed and it’s your intellectual speed. I think if you can play with a speed game, you can have success, but you’ve got to have some structure within that speed game and that’s what Dale is really trying to implement here. Give these guys some structure when we don’t have the puck because we know what kind of skill we have when we have the puck here, so it’s getting it back as soon as we can and spending less time in our own end.”
Johnson has never coached any of the current Caps defensemen – though his son played with John Carlson at the U-17 level – but he believes that the most important part of coaching is getting to know the players personally and professionally so that he can help them reach their full potential.
“It’s easy to work with defensemen, especially at this level,” Johnson said. “They’re really receptive to your ideas and I had some good conversations on the ice today with some of them. I’m just trying to get to know some of them a little bit, understand what their learning patterns are, the way they like to learn.”