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Penguins had no choice but to fire Johnston

Mike Johnston had trouble getting his offensive stars to deliver. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

How many rabbits are left in that hat?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are down to their last few tricks as they try to keep the window to win again in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era cracked open.

You could feel Saturday's firing of head coach Mike Johnston coming from a mile away. This is a team loaded with offensive talent, yet it is 27th in goals per game, and some of the top players have not been hiding their frustration since the start of the season.

That usually spells doom for the coach.

General manager Jim Rutherford might have preferred to make a bold trade before firing his coach, but as we've all seen in a league in which so many teams are cap-stricken, meaningful trades are few and far between in the first half of the NHL season. I still suspect we’ll see a trade when the time is right, but Rutherford felt he had to act.

The Penguins, a club that remains for sale, have been in desperation (try to win) mode for a few years, as they traded away draft picks and prospects to keep that window open. It’s why they traded for Phil Kessel in the summer, and it's why the Penguins hired the veteran Rutherford as GM to replace Ray Shero, as if to underline that short-term fixation rather than going with younger minds such as Julien BriseBois or an internal option such as Jason Botterill, who might have taken a more long-term approach to fix what ails the fading franchise.

I have no problem with that. Rutherford isn’t afraid to make bold moves, and if that’s what you want if you're the owner -- one last, short-term kick at the can -- so be it.

But how long does this window stay open?

Rutherford couldn’t keep waiting and hoping. He had to act, even if he hated firing a guy he considers a good person and good coach.

"I felt it was time for a coaching change because our team has underachieved," Rutherford said in a team statement. "Our expectations are much higher with this group of players."

Rutherford has been impressed by Mike Sullivan’s work at the helm of the team's AHL affiliate, so he gets the promotion to Penguins head coach, while veteran coach Jacques Martin comes down from the press box, where he was an eye in the sky, and joins Rick Tocchet on the bench with Sullivan.

Sullivan has a solid pedigree. He has earned this opportunity. But it’s only going to matter if he connects with the Penguins' core players, which Johnston could not.

There is another trade or two up Rutherford’s sleeve before all is said and done this season. After that, the Penguins will be all out of tricks.

This is maybe their last shot. If it works, perhaps the window stays open for a few more years. If it fails again, with a first-round exit or worse, we might witness a pretty dramatic offseason.