CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — When Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford called Jack Johnson Sunday, he had no idea the defenseman was en route to Pittsburgh.
“I didn’t know he was coming in,” Rutherford said. “When we agreed to this contract at noon (Sunday), I called him to get a signature on it, and he said was an hour out of Pittsburgh.”
And thus became the only surprising thing about the Penguins’ signing of Johnson to a five-year free-agent contract with a $3.25 million salary cap hit. It had been widely reported by many, including here at Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
Unless you are a skeptic and thought the team only brought Johnson over from Columbus because he and Penguins captain and star center Sidney Crosby are friends dating to their days in prep school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota half their lives ago. Then you might be surprised to learn of Crosby’s very small role.
Crosby didn’t push Rutherford to sign Johnson. “Not very much,” Rutherford said of the extent he talked to Crosby about Johnson.
The three-time Cup winner did play a small, mostly passive role.
“He actually talked to me a while back,” Johnson said of Crosby. “We had kind of a short conversation about it. He said he’d like to give me a sales job on coming, and I saved him the time and said, ‘You don’t have to do much of a sales job on me.’
“He definitely is an important part of this. He’s the one who drives the boat around here. I know him well enough to know that he’s the kind of guy that wants five Cups, and the minute he gets a fifth, he’s going to want a sixth. That’s important to me, to be a part of that, and to have someone like that leading the charge.”
Defining Johnson’s Role
Johnson, 31 and seven months older than Crosby, provides the balance on defense Rutherford has said he wanted. The 6-foot-1, 227-pounder — who was drafted third overall in 2005 by Rutherford, then with Carolina, but played at Michigan and was traded before playing with the Hurricanes – could find a home playing a strong defensive game and moving the puck up to the Penguins skilled forwards, guys such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and others.
“One of the things we lacked last year was three pairings that we had a puck-mover on. Jack’s a good skater, good puck mover. He can play both sides. He can play on either special team,” Rutherford said.
“It’s certainly going to help him with the forwards he plays with. You go back to the two years we won the Cup, especially the first year, we had a terrific transition game. That transition game, you have to have defensemen that can move the puck.”
Johnson considers that a cornerstone to his job description.
“That’s definitely my main objective as a defenseman,” he said. “Your job is to play defense first and contribute on offense when you can, and getting the puck out of our zone as quickly as possible is part of playing defense. The less time we spend down there, the better. Being able to get it to world-class players like Sid and Malkin and Kessel – the list goes on and on – makes my job a little bit easier and a lot more fun.”
Bye ’17-18, Hello Gonchar
Johnson is coming off a season in which he had his worst numbers in nearly a decade. He had three goals, 11 points in 77 games, his analytics were poor and by late in the season and the playoffs, he was made a healthy scratch by Columbus coach John Tortorella.
Johnson alluded to the fact that there was perhaps a personality conflict.
“There were a few things that didn’t go according to plan,” he said. “Some of those things I’d prefer not to discuss (publicly). But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and to not come to (an agreement on) an extension in Columbus led me to this opportunity, and I couldn’t be happier. I wouldn’t trade a thing that happened to be standing here right now.”
Rutherford likewise wasn’t dissuaded by Johnson’s 2018-19 performance.
“I beg to differ about (any opinions) that he had a bad year last year,” Rutherford said. “I don’t think he had a bad year. He was a healthy scratch at the end of the season. I know the reason why. It wasn’t because of how he was playing. The coaches – (Sergei Gonchar) and (Mike Sullivan) – have gone over the tapes, over and over, watching him play, and we feel very strong about this player, that he’s going to improve our team.”
Besides, Rutherford said, Gonchar, the team’s defensive guru, can always work his magic. He helped past Penguins acquisitions, including current defenseman Justin Schultz and former Penguin Trevor Daley, reach untapped or stalled potential.
“I’ll always put my money on Sergei Gonchar,” Rutherford said. “He is a real special person when it comes to (working) one-on-one with these guys.”
Johnson, in the meantime, is house-hunting and thanking the hockey gods.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to be here,” he said. “It just seemed like a perfect fit in every which way. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to be here, to be a Pittsburgh Penguin. My wife and I said it checks all the boxes for us – great place to bring the family, great opportunity for hockey. I’ve been really wanting to be part of a winning culture in a place where the expectations to win are as high as they can be, and a chance to win.”