The opinions were swift and they were negative. The blogosphere, many fans, and our Matt Gajtka panned the Pittsburgh Penguins for agreeing in principle to a contract with defenseman Jack Johnson. “Look at his analytics, they’re terrible,” shouted Penguins fans who flooded Twitter as Columbus Blue Jackets fans teased them about the soon-to-be former Columbus defenseman.
Penguins fans should relax. Jack Johnson is the right defenseman for the Penguins at the right time.
Bad analytics has become the “he’s not good at hockey” catchphrase, 2.0. The funny thing about analytics, however, is they’re also a reflection of the team, situation and sometimes just not that important. The Washington Capitals just won the right to bend the Stanley Cup but were a lousy analytics team. The 2017 Penguins were nothing short of a punching bag without Kris Letang, and their story also ended with a Stanley Cup.
Johnson’s reported contract amount will be between $16.5 million and $17.5 million over five years. That is third pairing money for a defenseman with top pairing experience. Upon hearing the Johnson news, sources told PHN the Penguins coaches, were “psyched.”
So what do the Penguins know that fans are missing?
Let’s start with the skill set. Johnson, 31, is a great skater, he is physical, he blocks shots and has good offensive upside. He dished 101 hits and blocked 135 shots last year in 77 games, despite a down year. Johnson’s career-best hit total is 180, and his blocked shot total was just one off a career high. The Penguins have a desperate need for a little bit of sandpaper on their blueline. Johnson is that guy.
For comparison sake, Johnson’s hits and blocked shot rate are comparable with Ian Cole. But Johnson offers much more.
Johnson doesn’t turn the puck over, either. His giveaway total for the past four seasons has been 30 or below, despite playing monster minutes. Let’s not compare that total to other Penguins defenseman, for the Penguins sake. Except for Justin Schultz, Johnson’s giveaway total is much lower. Much, much lower.
The Penguins have already told Letang they will cut his minutes to boost his consistency. An average third pairing defenseman would not allow the Penguins to do that but Johnson’s minute totals throughout his career have been over 24 minutes. He will permit the Penguins to reduce Letang’s ice time, which means more productivity at the top of the lineup, too.
That’s a win-win.
There are negatives to Johnson’s game beyond his puck possession numbers, which aren’t that bad. Johnson had only 11 points (3g, 8a) last season but the offensively middling Blue Jackets scored only 242 goals. He did find himself in head coach John Tortorella’s doghouse, which has plenty of space. For the entirety of Round 1 against the Washington Capitals, Johnson was seated in the press box.
And Johnson’s defensive positioning can be faulty. He has been known to leave a good position to make a hit.
The American born defenseman who played at the University of Michigan needs to simplify his game. With the Penguins, Johnson will not be asked to play 25 minutes, nor will he be responsible for the opposition’s top line. Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar has helped Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak simplify their games and cover the defensive zone which has produced maximum results.
Gonchar’s new student won’t be nearly as challenging.
The Penguins defense doesn’t need a savior; it needs someone to occasionally make it tough to play the puck, move the puck forward to skill players, and not turn it over. Johnson is ideally suited for that role. It may take an adjustment period. Like Matt Hunwick before him, Johnson may feel pressure to join the Penguins elite offensive attack and do so in ill-advised moments. But, in the long run, the Penguins have a potential top flight defenseman locked up at a discount price. Oh, and we know Johnson already fits into the Penguins room as he and captain Sidney Crosby were inseparable high school friends at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s.
Like many Pittsburghers, Crosby has remained close to his high school buddy, too. Johnson may find similarities between Penguins boss Mike Sullivan and his former boss Tortorella, but he will also step into a winning environment with an assistant coach who specializes in helping defensemen channel their skill set.
Don’t worry about past analytics in different situations. Look at the player and what he can do for the Penguins. It’s probable that Letang’s play improves in decreased minutes, and Johnson’s game improves with less responsibility and more opportunity. Five years is a long contract, but in a paper-thin free agent market which is exploding values, the Penguins got a steal.
Does his Corsi with the Columbus Blue Jackets really matter?