Losing breeds a lot of theories, second-guessing and demands. We all get smarter. The team gets dumber. Lately, the Pittsburgh Penguins experienced far too much losing and more than a few opinions became fact as the social media voices, fans, and some media collided to confirm each other. Opinions about Jack Johnson and Daniel Sprong top the list of frequently pushed views which have only become stronger.
Trigger warning–this won’t be a column which supports popular emotions. It won’t be to inflame but to balance. And maybe slow down the runaway train of unwarranted player bashing, or praising.
Myth #1: Jack Johnson Sucks!
Penguins fans have not only pinned team failures on Johnson, but they’ve also blamed him for mistakes of others, too. Penguins give up a goal while Johnson is on the ice? Johnson’s fault. Other team gets sustained offensive pressure? Johnson’s fault. The other four players or opponents? Don’t matter.
Mike Sullivan has rarely if ever–unprompted– gone out of his way to defend his players from specific fan criticism. He did so for Johnson after Johnson was on the ice for five goals against earlier this season. For this and numerous other reasons such as ice time, situational placement, and pairing assignment, count the coaches in Johnson’s corner.
Now, here’s where it gets deep. Jack Johnson is not only a solid NHL defender, but he excels in his own zone. Things which don’t show up on the stat sheet, such as boxing out his man in front of the net, pinning forwards to the wall, and winning physical battles. Even during the losing streak, Johnson kept opponents away from the net.
Rewatch the Columbus win. Johnson was a textbook defender as he pushed around Brandon Dubinsky and Josh Anderson. Such occurrences aren’t infrequent. Johnson also has 60 hits in 22 games and rarely gets beaten by his man.
This is a prime example–Johnson quickly adjusted to a forward’s turnover, kept the crease clear, allowed the goalie to see the shot and prevented traffic. Those are all good things which are most evident when they’re not present. LIke an offensive line only gets screen time when something bad happens, Johnson is in a similar situation.
And the important statistic–Scoring chances–is dead even in the last 10 games, with 66 chances for and against. One odd note, as Johnson’s scoring chances were upside down, his Corsi rating was right side up, and when his Corsi was on the positive side of 50 percent, his scoring chances were below water. I very likely explanation is when teams take the advantage on the Penguins, Johnson can protect zone and absorb shots but not chances–that’s the strength of Jack Johnson.
#2 Daniel Sprong Should Play with Sid!
If only Mike Sullivan didn’t hate Daniel Sprong, he would be in the Penguins top-9, playing with good players and he would be scoring. Additional subsets include, “You have to find out what he can do,” “Other players make mistakes but don’t get benched,” “Other players suck, at least Sprong might score,” and the most egregious, “Dominik Simon is terrible! The coaches favor him over Sprong.”
There’s a lot to unpack with the Sprong beliefs. Let’s start with this: Sprong doesn’t have to score on the fourth line to get a promotion. He simply has to prove proficiency in the NHL game.
So many of the things Sprong doesn’t do, is struggling to do, or is learning to do are not obvious to most. Puck support is a huge one. The Penguins fourth line Corsi and scoring chances spiked when the Penguins recalled Zach Aston-Reese and scratched Sprong because the line was able to gain possession and play with the puck. Sprong’s puck support is a still a mess.
“Other players make mistakes!”
They do, but other players can be counted on to make the right play, be in the right spot and do the right things. So when they don’t, it is an obvious mistake. Sprong is still learning almost everything and on any given shift can (and often does) make several mistakes.
Sprong’s play away from the puck is another big one which hurts possession and chances. Matt Cullen took a lot of heat from ardent Sprong believers, but Cullen played very well with Riley Sheahan and Patric Hornqvist (until the coaches overused him), and very well with Garrett Wilson and Aston-Reese.
So, the direct comparison is damning. Now, imagine a lack of puck support, play away from the puck and defensive positioning with Sidney Crosby’s line and against the opponent’s top line. What could it hurt? Not only would such a line combo be detrimental to Crosby, but it would also be harmful to the team.
Jake DeBrusk’s one-timer was a stoppable shot but note Sprong abdicating his primary coverage which allowed a much better opportunity.
The team began training camp and preseason with the Sprong-Crosby combination and with Dominik Simon who plays a smart, fast game. Simon passed his test. Sprong is still studying. It’s not the coaches holding him back. They know full well what he can do–for better and worse–even as many choose to believe he can be the same scorer he was in the AHL last season.
There are a lot of players who score points in the AHL but not the NHL. Garrett Wilson is a point-per-game player in the AHL this season. It’s a much different league.
Sprong does not have to be perfect, but he has to attain the basic feel of the game. When he does, his scoring chances will appear. The Penguins puck possession on his line will appear, and everyone will know it’s time to elevate Sprong.
The Penguins coaches are doing their best to develop Sprong in the NHL and win hockey games, too. The team isn’t currently in a position to water seeds which don’t bear fruit. It’s not fair to Sprong to be in such a position, trying to take a graduate course before mastering professional hockey 101 but that’s the position all find themselves.