CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – There are things Jack Johnson knows. Things he thinks he knows. Things he knows but isn’t telling. And things he doesn’t know yet.
That is what the new Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, who signed as a free agent July 1, revealed Wednesday after he participated with a couple new teammates in an informal practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Perhaps the most intriguing is what he knows but isn’t telling, even if it does fall mostly under the category of entertainment rather than hardcore hockey talk.
Johnson was telling a group of reporters that he expects his transition to Pittsburgh to be easier than when he was traded from Los Angeles to Columbus, where he has played the past six-plus seasons, because he knows several of the Penguins players.
“When I got traded to Columbus I didn’t know anybody there,” Johnson said.
It’s well documented that Johnson and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby have been friends since they were teens at Shattuck-St. Mary’s school. Johnson said he also knows defenseman Kris Letang, center Derrick Brassard and, for many years, lovable rascal Phil Kessel.
So, Johnson was asked, do you have any good stories involving Kessel?
“I’ve got a lot of good Phil stories,” he said.
Care to share?
“No,” he said, laughing.
What Johnson, 31, does not know is just exactly how he will fit with the Penguins. A left-handed shooter, he said he has played both sides on defense going back to high school, feels capable on both sides and has no preference.
“I don’t know who I’m going to be playing with or what side I’m on or anything like that,” he said. “I’m just coming in open-minded to everything. I think the coaches are (too). We’ll see where everything falls as the season goes along.
“I’m pretty open to anything. I think I can play in any situation. I try to. I like to think I can. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
Johnson, winger Jake Guentzel and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel were the only Penguins who got on the ice for an informal practice Wednesday. They were overseen by former Penguin Jay Caufield, who has been known to be a taskmaster.
“The first time I met him was last week. He makes us work out there – especially when there’s only three of us,” Johnson said.
Johnson didn’t alter his offseason training to better fit with the Penguins. After all, he doesn’t yet know what will be asked of him or what adjustments to his game he might need to make. And he only met the team’s strength and conditioning staff about a week ago.
Johnson is one of the earlybirds — those who arrive in town considerably early ahead of training camp – primarily for family reasons.
“To get my family settled, to get my wife and kids here, to get my daughter in school and just getting everyone acclimated,” he said, describing their look for a place to live like something right out of “House Hunters.”
“My wife was on top of it. She narrowed it down to three homes. We came in one day and saw all three and we just knew which one we were going to get right away.”
Johnson said he and his family haven’t explored much of the Pittsburgh area yet, mostly staying in the Cranberry area, but they have enjoyed what they have seen and have made an effort to get settled and fit in.
He got to hang out some with Crosby, who was in town recently.
“We got to work out together, skate together and catch up a little,” Johnson said. “My wife’s been in touch with his girlfriend – and other (players’) girlfriends on the team, too. Everyone’s been very welcoming.
“It’s nice to play with (Crosby). I played against him in the Olympics, playoffs, World Cup. It will be a lot nicer playing with him than against him.”
Johnson is sure of one thing — he’s thrilled to be here. He repeatedly expressed an eagerness for things to get under way with his new club, reminiscent of a youngster who is excited for the first day of school.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “I’m coming to a team that’s been the top team if not one of the top teams for a long time now. You sit in the (locker) room here surrounded by great players. I just think on an everyday basis for practice and games being around great players helps elevate your own game individually.
“I don’t think of myself as an older guy. I still think I’ve got a lot (of room) to grow and a lot to improve on. I feel like I’m just getting started.
I’m really excited about it.”
When Johnson gushed in a similar manner during an introductory press conference July 1, members of the Columbus Blue Jackets took exception, as if Johnson was snubbing his former club.
“I was very surprised,” he said of the backlash, then quickly added, “I haven’t thought about it since.”
Instead, he’s keenly focused on his new team, new city, and a few familiar faces.
As for Kessel, Johnson did offer a glowing assessment, even if he was unwilling to dish any good behind-the-scenes stuff.
“I’m sure I’m not going to tell you guys anything you don’t already know,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal talent. He’s another guy I’m excited to play with in the NHL. That guy scores goals. You can’t teach what he does. He’s just got a knack for putting the puck in the net.”