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Gajtka: Jack Johnson Pursuit Puts Penguins On Track For Another Rough Summer

There’s plenty to worry about regarding this team’s ability to maximize its continued championship potential.



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The time to judge a decision isn’t in the future. Hindsight isn’t fair to the people making tough calls in the present.

At this point, in our accelerated media times, we’ve already experienced the backlash to the Penguins’ pursuit defenseman Jack Johnson, followed by the backlash to the backlash. The news of a potential five-year agreement with Johnson is barely 24 hours old, but it seems every possible take has already been expressed, both on social media and in the real world.

As for me, you already know how I feel about the Penguins’ interest in Johnson, or at least you would if you were a PHN Extra subscriber. (I’m nothing if not subtle.) All the publicly-available data — and I mean all of it — suggests Johnson is deserving of a one-year show-me contract and nothing more.

What I hope to discuss here is something a little more big-picture. Some Penguins fans who’ve defended the anticipated Johnson addition are arguing that if the team can turn around Justin Schultz‘s career, who’s to say that history can’t repeat itself?

Leaving aside the basic differences between the two defensemen — variations in age and offensive potential chief among them — the Schultz acquisition was eminently justifiable from the get-go, since Jim Rutherford surrendered just a third-round draft pick to get him. Schultz has returned the Penguins’ faith in him, but even if he didn’t, the risk could’ve been shrugged off.

The Johnson signing would be uncharacteristic of Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh in that we’re talking about a free agent clearly in decline about to be signed to a long-term contract. Rutherford has made these commitments to guys like Patric Hörnqvist, a productive player already under the Penguins’ roof. In that case, the team can live with the deal being a burden by the end, because the player will likely continue to be solid for the next couple of seasons at least.

In the case of a player with Johnson’s recent performance level, a team in the Penguins’ position shouldn’t be willing to take this kind of gamble. For that matter, a team in any position shouldn’t be willing to take this type of gamble. Yes, Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin appear to be quite good at their jobs, but this is several bridges too far.

And before you say that we all need to wait to see how Johnson does in a Penguins’ uniform, that’s not how decision-making should be evaluated. Hey, it might work out. I’m not saying it won’t, necessarily.

But when we combine the term of this reported agreement with the yearly salary and the low probability that Johnson turns it around to a satisfactory degree, and it’s simply unacceptable for a team that’s trying to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin era. As I wrote earlier in the week, the Penguins should be pushing to get younger legs to help lift a core of skaters that’s moving out of its prime years.

Maybe there’s still room for a Jeff Skinner type, even with Johnson taking up $3 million of valuable cap space for the next few seasons. We should never rule out Rutherford’s ability to work his peers and achieve his objectives through wheeling and dealing, as Wednesday’s offloading of Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick showed.

Then again, maybe Sheary is just the kind of cost-controlled talent the Penguins should be holding onto. His development path is still unfinished, but Johnson’s is almost certainly concluded.

If one is a mistake and two is a trend, then Penguins fans should be concerned that Rutherford and his hockey operations staff are on the verge of back-to-back unproductive summers. If Johnson isn’t the big addition of the offseason, that fate can be avoided, but for right now there’s plenty to worry about regarding this team’s ability to maximize its continued championship potential.

First-world problem, I know. But it’s still a problem.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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