The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Jack Johnson on July 1, just minutes into the first day of free agency. Johnson is a left-handed shot which slightly complicates the Penguins defensive pairings but the Penguins aggressively targeted him for additional skills which they felt were lacking on their blueline. His ability to play big minutes, play both right and left defense, and perhaps most importantly his ability to be rough on opponents landed him a five-year, $16.25 million contract. And Johnson is coming from a team coached by Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s friend and mentor, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella.
“They see eye to eye how to run a team,” said Johnson as he downplayed any cultural shock or adjustment periods with a new team. “Their two coaches with a pretty similar philosophy…Everyone tries to play the same way (defensively). Some teams do it better than others.”
Somewhat fortunately, Sullivan was Johnson’s head coach in the 2007 World Championship, “we laughed about that,” Johnson admitted. Sullivan was also an assistant coach over Johnson in the 2016 World Cup.
Johnson, 31, is mature enough to not need to make a splash with his new team. He was originally drafted third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes and their then-GM Jim Rutherford. After some impatience waiting for Johnson to turn pro from the University of Michigan, Carolina dealt Johnson to Los Angeles where he began his career in 2006-07. After five-plus seasons, Columbus acquired the stocky blueliner to be the anchor of their defense. Unlike his high school friend Sidney Crosby, Johnson has not yet won a Stanley Cup (Los Angeles won a Cup with a big help from their return in the Johnson trade, Jeff Carter).
“I’m doing more listening than talking,” Johnson said. “(We) haven’t gotten into anything (schematically). We’re just scrimmaging right now.”
Johnson has been paired with Schultz to begin the camp, though assistant coach Jacques Martin cautioned that real pairings may not show up until after the second preseason game. For now, “we tried to balance the veterans,” Martin said as he specifically downplayed Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin being separated in camp. One thing which can be gleaned from the beginning of camp is that Johnson is being penciled into the lineup as a left defender.
“Can’t let anything change my game. (Right now), I just think you learn tendencies and stuff like that,” he conceded. “You learn each other’s tendencies and that’s how you grow together as a pair.”
Preseason Games Matter
“Exhibitions are big. You get more of a taste of your partner in game situations,” Johnson continued. “It will probably be a lot more physical, too.”
Well, maybe not that physical. The Penguins begin their preseason schedule Tuesday night in Buffalo. The Sabres and second-year GM Jason Botterill have focused on adding speed and veteran presence; very much like the Pittsburgh formula where Botterill was the assistant general manager from 2014-2017. Botterill’s tenure included a pair of Stanley Cup championships.
However, neither Johnson or Schultz will play, Tuesday. The Penguins released their game roster and only a few players with NHL contracts will dress. Jake Guentzel, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel are the big names. Zach Aston-Reese, who is battling for a roster spot will also play.
For now, Johnson will wait to wear a Penguins sweater. His comments won’t cause a stir as he did at his introductory press conference when his praise for the Penguins was taken as an insult in Columbus and drew the ire of Tortorella. Instead Johnson is trying to fit into his new surroundings. Thus far, mission accomplished.