The Pittsburgh Penguins trade of Erik Gudbranson last Friday cleared over $4 million of salary-cap space so the Penguins could not only have a full roster but at some point, they can address their needs or wants. The deal put an end to a few months of Penguins trade speculation involving defenseman Jack Johnson and allowed the team to stabilize the Penguins third pairing with Johnson and rookie John Marino.
Johnson had to exhale when that was all over, right? Wrong.
PHN spoke to Johnson on Wednesday afternoon. He’s either a cool cat who truly didn’t let the Penguins trade rumors bother him, or he is a convincing actor. We’re betting on the former. We also asked about his role in Marino’s development and how the pair communicate on the bench and the ice.
Lost in the social media fire around Johnson is his hockey IQ. The former offensive defenseman has adjusted and readjusted his game to become a defensive defenseman. He and Marino frequently switch roles and positions to play to their strengths. Marino is the slick skating, head up defenseman who swipe a loose puck in the defensive zone and dart out of trouble. Johnson is the wrecking ball who had over 200 hits last season and kept the front of the net clear for goalie Matt Murray.
If you’re into the little nuances and seldom noticed little things, you can see Marino and Johnson frequently communicating and calling each other.
“I like to think so. The more you can communicate, the easier it is instead of trying to guess what the other guy is doing,” Johnson said. “Usually, guys do a pretty good job of assuming or knowing your partner, but I think we talk a fair amount, especially with a new pairing we talk as much as possible.”
The Penguins defense has undergone a significant change this season. It looked like Juuso Riikola and Erik Gudbranson would form the third pairing with Marino getting a little more seasoning in the AHL and Johnson perhaps becoming accustomed to press box nachos. However, Marino forced his way into the lineup with his ability to move the puck, skate and defend. Gudbranson was made expendable, and Johnson is the better partner for the rookie defenseman.
But Johnson shut down any talk that he has to guide his new teammate.
“There are only a few situations here and there,” he said. “I don’t think he needs another coach. I think we’ve got plenty of those. He needs a partner and friend. I don’t treat him like an inexperienced defenseman. He’s here for a reason, and he made the team for a reason. He’s my peer.”
The pair have played about six games together as the third pairing. They’ve played only 80 minutes at 5v5, but the numbers are shaking out precisely as you may expect, with a little twist. Marino without Johnson has a positive Corsi rating but a negative goal differential and even scoring chance ratio. With Johnson, Marino has a negative Corsi (46%), but an even goal differential and also scoring chance ratio.
Ah-ha! See, Johnson brings down Marino, right? Wrong. Without Johnson, Marino began a majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. Mostly, those are sheltered minutes. With Johnson, the pair are beginning twice as many shifts in the defensive zone and just 34% in the offensive zone.
In other words, the coaches are deploying them in tough situations, and they are getting the puck out of the zone. All stats, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Here is the full breakdown.
“You know, we’re doing pretty well. I’m pretty pleased with it,” Johnson said with a little surprise and acknowledgment as his voice got higher. “I think he’s done a really nice job fitting in and playing well in his first few games. I’m sure there will be a lot of new experiences for him, but I’m sure he’ll do pretty well.”
Johnson was forthcoming about his new teammate. But like pesky forwards trying to get at Penguins goalie Matt Murray, Johnson cleared me away from the trade talk, too. Perhaps when you go through hell, what bothers you or things to which you pay attention changes.
Trust me on that one.
Johnson’s name was the most frequent to appear in trade rumors and even a trade report on the eve of the regular season.
“No. I wasn’t stressed,” Johnson said coldly. “You always know trades can happen but it’s nothing to stress about. It’s out of your control, and it’s not like I had to exhale or anything.”
For Johnson and the Penguins, things have indeed stabilized. The pairings are set. The roster is finally healthy, as Evgeni Malkin will likely return Saturday. Unless the Penguins receive a veteran left side defenseman who does the dirty jobs and kills penalties, Johnson’s name will fade from Penguins trade talks. Not that he bothered listening, anyway. As long as Johnson hears Marino, it appears the Penguins will be just fine.