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Jack Johnson Looks to Rewrite the Narrative

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Pittsburgh Penguins Jack Johnson

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — Jack Johnson has produced poor advanced statistics throughout his career.

But what a tired narrative that has become.

You can put advanced numbers together which make a case that singing the former Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman was a bad idea. But those numbers are the past with different teams. Johnson now plays for a team that has enjoyed an obscene amount of success. He plays for what is arguably the best coaching staff in the NHL. And his past has only strengthened him.

“I know I can play,” said Johnson. “The way things ended last year didn’t affect me at all. That’s why I ended up here.”

The way that Johnson has conducted himself in training camp, and during preseason games has been nothing short of impressive. His offensive abilities have been on display, while at the same time establishing a physical presence that the Penguins’ blueline has desperately needed. The 31-year old is clearly motivated to find the success that has eluded him during his career.

Getting a Bad Rap in Columbus

Maybe the most telling change in Johnson is that he appears to be having fun, and loving every moment of playing in a lineup with a winning culture. In Columbus, the former first-round pick was counted on to be the team’s stud defender. With Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin, there isn’t nearly the same amount of pressure, allowing him to play his game without being forced to do too much.

Shortly after he was signed to a five-year contract, Johnson called Pittsburgh a “perfect fit”, and early results show that this could be the case.

“I’m looking forward to a fun season, a long season,” Johnson said this week.

His time in the capital of Ohio felt like a long, slow digression for many different reasons. The ‘analytics’ stigma that the blogosphere placed on him followed from Los Angeles, and he was never able to shake it. Columbus struggled for most of Johnson’s time there, flirting with success, but never being able to get over the hump. Naturally, the expensive, highly touted player that was acquired in a high-profile trade would catch a significant amount of the blame. Then add John Tortorella to the mix with his over-the-top personality and extreme coaching methods, and it was a recipe for disaster.

To show the scrutiny that the defender was under last season, popular Blue Jackets’ players Brandon Dubinsky, Matt Calvert, and Boone Jenner all had worse possession numbers than Johnson.

A Sixth Defender With Top-Pairing Skills

While a term of five years for a 31-year old seems unnecessary, if assistant coaches Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin can capitalize on Johnson’s skill set, it may be the steal of the offseason. Johnson’s fresh start and the Penguins specialists have Johnson in a good place, already.

“I think when you’re having fun, all of those things, the hockey part comes along, too,” Johnson smiled. 

It doesn’t matter to Johnson if he plays the right or the left side, “I don’t look at it that way (preferring which side), I just go out and play. Some shifts on the right, some shifts on the left,” he concluded. “I don’t look at it as a difficult thing.”

The Penguins under Mike Sullivan have thrived on a quick transition game, seamless zone entries, and defensemen who are able to pinch in the offensive zone. This type of game is Johnson’s bread and butter. From a defensive standpoint, this is where you can point to Schultz as an example.

After the former Oiler was acquired, he was given sheltered minutes allowing Letang and Dumoulin to take the bulk of the high-pressure shifts. This approach allowed Schultz to play a more relaxed game that showcased his abilities. Pairing Johnson with Jamie Oleksiak or Olli Maatta would allow him to ease into his responsibilities, and maybe even have a Shultz-style breakout.

It has been said that Johnson does not have to be a top defender; he just has to be better than Matt Hunwick. Well, that certainly has already been accomplished. The Penguins’ defensive corps has steadily improved since the acquisition of Oleksiak in December and continued with Johnson. During training camp, Sullivan has regularly deployed the following pairings:

Dumoulin-Letang
Oleksiak-Shultz
Maatta-Johnson

The Oleksiak-Schultz pairing could be the top duo on some teams, which gives the Penguins an embarrassment of riches. Johnson just rounds out this group with a low-risk-high-reward addition.

For all of the unhappy stat fanatics out there, the newest Penguin had a ‘Corsi For %’ of 48.02. Let’s check back in six months and see if he was able to put that narrative to rest. And then maybe we’ll mention the hits, too.

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