If you were following along on social media during Pittsburgh Penguins practice Tuesday and saw that the injury-riddled team had Jack Johnson alongside Kris Letang as the top defensive pairing, did you cringe? Or worse?
Shame on you, Letang scolded of those who have made Johnson something of a whipping boy during his time with the Penguins.
Johnson has drawn criticism from Penguins fans pretty much since he signed a five-year, $16.25 million contract as a free agent in July 2018. It’s seen and heard on social media, sports talk radio and anywhere else fans sound off.
“I mean, whatever the fans (think), they’re not in our shoes,” Letang said after the practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “I don’t think they understand what we’re going through and what type of game J.J. brings to our team. Try to find another defenseman that hits and blocks shots like he does. None of the other six or seven guys are doing the same job he does.
“So I could (not) care less what people think. He gets the job done, which is what is important for our team.”
Johnson did struggle at times last season, particularly when the Penguins had him playing on his off side.
This season, Johnson has a goal and three assists, is plus-7, is second on the team with 65 hits and fourth among a tightly-packed group with blocked shots.
He’s also one of the Penguins who has remained healthy in a season that has been riddled with injuries – although he was scratched from one game.
Asked if there were any challenges to playing with an elite defenseman such as Letang, who likes to jump up on offense but also has the wheels to get back on defense, Johnson gave a succinct, “Nope.”
The two have not shared the ice very much during Johnson’s season-plus with the Penguins.
“We had one game, I want to say Dallas. We might have one or two games other than that this year. A couple of games last year,” Johnson recalled. “That’s about it. Fortunately, we were fairly healthy last year.”
There is an upside, of course, to being paired with Letang, should the Penguins stick with that Wednesday when the St. Louis Blues visit PPG Paints Arena.
“He’s a good player. You get to play with a good player,” Johnson said. “Great puck mover, great skater. Those things make it more enjoyable to play.
“You know he’s going to be all over the ice, but you trust him, trust good players like that. I’m sure he’ll be a pleasure to play with, just like he has been in the past.”
Letang, whose steady defense partner, Brian Dumoulin, had ankle surgery Sunday and is out for a couple months, said he and Johnson might only need to make a minor initial adjustment.
“Communication may be something that we have to focus on, just at the beginning because sometimes when you get used to somebody, you know where they are,” Letang said.