The outcry began immediately when news broke that Jack Johnson was a potential Pittsburgh Penguins July 1 signee. The analytics community lead the charge and Penguins fans not known to dig heavy, stay-at-home types were none too pleased either. When Johnson signed for five years, the level of teeth grinding earned a few dentists a vacation in Maui.
As the Penguins are set to begin the figurative second half of the NHL season, we can glean a few things from the first 48 games.
First, Johnson is not a Corsi god. Not even close. But, he’s also not a walking Corsi disaster, either.
Using NaturalStatTrick.com’s line tool, we can measure Johnson’s performance with the Penguins four centers, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Matt Cullen. The results show a trend which can be explained by the player’s skill set.
When on the ice with Crosby at 5v5 (147 minutes), Johnson has a 50 percent Corsi rating, a positive scoring chance ratio (51 percent) and a healthy percentage of high danger scoring chances (56 percent). However, when on the ice with the Penguins top line, Johnson has a negative goal differential (-4).
When on the ice with Malkin (261 minutes), Johnson has a 50 percent Corsi, a 53 percent scoring chance ratio and 51 percent high danger chance ratio. However, Johnson has a negative goal differential (-2).
It should be noted, with both Crosby and Malkin, the goals per 60 against ratio is higher. Crosby’s goals-against per 60 rate with Johnson is 3.25. Without Johnson, just 1.56.
Johnson is also underwater with Malkin. Without Johnson, Malkin has a 2.94 goals-against per 60. With Johnson, it jumps to 3.44.
Top two lines verdict
Johnson’s work with the top two lines is a mixed bag. On the ice with Crosby, Johnson’s lack of puck skills are a detriment in both goals scored and Corsi. Crosby’s typical Corsi rating is generally above 56 percent, so it’s a somewhat significant drop when Johnson joins the crew. However, the most significant dip is on the scoring chance ledger, as Crosby has a 58 percent favorable ratio compared to just 50 percent with Johnson.
With Malkin, Johnson’s numbers are perfectly aligned. Overall, Malkin has a 50 percent Corsi, 53 percent scoring chance rate but a negative goal differential. Johnson’s abilities don’t help Malkin’s line but they also don’t hurt, either.
Johnson’s work with the top lines reflects Johnson’s overall game. Whereas Crosby’s speed and low zone grinding game benefit from offensive pressure from the top of the zone, Malkin’s rush game and creativity don’t rely on the push from defensemen.
Concerning are the goals-against. They could be explained away by a few awful games, such as the minus-5 in Edmonton. But it is something to watch in the second half.
When on the ice with Brassard and Cullen is where Johnson’s numbers hit the skids but not without cause. When on the ice with Brassard (136 minutes), the five-man unit has a 41 percent Corsi, 40 percent scoring chance ratio and 42 high danger ratio.
However, the goals scored are abysmal. The five-man unit has only one goal scored and six against (-5).
With Cullen, there’s an interesting twist. The numbers are bad across the board, not just because the fourth line is offensively limited but because the Penguins fourth line has increasingly been utilized as a shutdown line against the opponents top line.
The Corsi rating and scoring chance rates with Cullen range around 37 percent, but there have been 15 goals scored; six goals for and nine goals-against.
The goals will be an interesting point to watch in the second half to determine if it’s an anomaly or there is something with Johnson’s game which fits the line.
Verdict: It’s hard to judge anything with Brassard. Things have gone sideways all season for the Penguins third line center. The fourth line is interesting. Their Corsi rating is abysmal, in large part due to the role and a large number of defensive zone starts. Just 10 percent of the shifts start in the offensive zone.
Penalty Killing, Blocks & Hits
It’s a more common designation for a player to be a power play specialist. However, Johnson may earn the penalty kill specialist. The Penguins penalty kill is tied for second in the league with an 84.2 percent kill rate. As one of the primary penalty killers, Johnson should get a healthy dose of credit.
Goals not scored don’t make the stat sheet.
Johnson is 15th in the league with 140 hits and 24th with 87 blocked shots. When hits and blocks are combined, Johnson is sixth in the league.
Johnson is what the Penguins thought he was when they signed him. For those looking for offensive stats, slick passes or rush support; Johnson won’t fill the void.
Statistically, Johnson doesn’t contribute offensively. Defensively, his goals against are inflated by a couple of terrible games including his infamous minus-5 performance in Edmonton, for which he was not only defended but exonerated by Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
If each team carries seven defensemen, there are roughly 217 defensemen currently in the NHL, though a few teams like the Penguins roster eight. Johnson’s salary ranks 105th. Factoring in defensemen still on their ELC, Johnson’s salary places him in the bottom half of veteran defensemen.
Johnson is an unheralded defenseman with defensive strengths and offensive weakness. The stats are unlikely to halt the cavalcade of fan scorn; sometimes that’s more difficult to turnaround than a runaway train. He is an inexpensive option which provides some valuable services even if he doesn’t contribute to the offensive totals.
Squeezing nuance into sports in 2019 is tough. It is, or it isn’t. Twitter is on fire or Tweeps are bored. Johnson, unfortunately, appears to be a defenseman who resides in the nuance. The Penguins penalty kill is rock solid but Crosby and Malkin are having more goals scored on them with Johnson than without. Johnson hits and blocks shots with aplomb, but doesn’t push the offense.
As numbers even out in the second half, and Johnson completes his adjustment to a new team and system–in addition to perhaps returning to the left side when Justin Schultz returns, the final verdict will be interesting. And Penguins fans should adjust their expectations. He’s going to be around for a while.