This hockey season has been more vexing than most because of the runaway train of groupthink which has utterly dismissed and bagged players who don’t fit the Pittsburgh Penguins traditional prototypes. The group has been absolutely sure Jack Johnson should be exiled from hockey to a snow farm in Siberia, that Erik Gudbranson is one of the worst defensemen in the NHL, and that Dominik Simon should be buried in the AHL.
The group comprised of blogs, Twitterverse and other social media which channel emotions and create perception has spoken. Fortunately for those in that group who root for Penguins success, they’re wrong. Dead, flat wrong.
There weren’t many who dared to explain — repeatedly — that Jack Johnson was doing yeoman’s work as a right-side defenseman but he would significantly improve when placed on the left side with a puck-moving defenseman like Justin Schultz.
The move happened and suddenly Jack Johnson is seen as a physical, stay-at-home defender who has helped the Penguins suppress their opponents’ scoring chances. Gee, who would have guessed?
The vociferous objections and attacks on the player were well out of hand. Did Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel miss a defensive assignment but Johnson was on the ice, too? Johnson’s fault. Be the only defender back on a two-on-one? Still Johnson’s fault. It became an obsession with being right about Johnson.
Just look at his Corsi! His Corsi for gosh sakes is well below 50 percent! He’s terrible! The attacks this writer received paled in comparison to the player who was outright savaged on social media.
Especially over the last few games which the Penguins should have won but bad luck, or lousy goaltending cost them points, the spotlight has shown positively on Johnson’s contributions.
It’s amazing what you see when you’re open to it.
Sure, any attempt to explain the subtleties, nuances or outright misconceptions has been met with merely turning up the volume. If all of Penguins Twitterverse agrees, how could they be wrong?
Easy. Hockey isn’t a game that can be adequately quantified on paper like baseball, nor can it be boiled down to individual performances like the NBA. Hockey at the NHL level is a complex orchestra of improvisation within boundaries. What may be an incorrect positioning on one team is the preferred coverage on another.
And in the absence of direct knowledge, the group fills in the gaps. If everyone says a player is terrible, he must be terrible, right?
Erik Gubranson has spent only 63 minutes in a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater. He was physical, he was a presence in the defensive zone, he will provide the emotional lift of physical pushback, and he was beaten once on the perimeter by Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt.
It was a stellar performance but what you will focus on largely depends on what you want to see.
The truth is Gudbranson has hockey skills which the Penguins want to mine. They think he can be a solid defenseman, and for this gamble they gave up the low, low price of the unneeded Tanner Pearson. Oh by the way, the Penguins also made the trade after realizing they would be without their top three defensemen for a while. And after San Jose Sharks power forward Evander Kane mocked their bench.
But the group still had angst and thus screamed. Gudbranson’s Corsi is terrible! He must be terrible! Or, as the player said and a few cautious hockey analysts pointed out, he was in the wrong situation (Read Gudbranson’s honest assessment of his time in Vancouver here).
After seeing the early returns, which seems more plausible? Gudbranson has the makings of a solid, physical third pairing defenseman capable of playing in the Penguins system. He may not succeed, but it seems like lunacy to write him off.
Or perhaps the group will concede one good game and wait for their next opportunity to pounce. Johnson, Gudbranson, and Simon will make a mistake. Will have a bad game or three. There will be an opportunity.
And poor Simon. His greatest crime was displaying a two-way game and NHL readiness before departed prospect Daniel Sprong. Without a pedigree or years of emotional investment, Simon was the object of frustration as Penguins fans wanted Sprong to succeed but Simon played ahead of him.
“When you look at (Simon), for most of the year he’s been a half-point-per-game guy, which is pretty respectable,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He does a lot of the little things out there that help lines to be successful. For example, he’s good along the wall, he can hold onto pucks in the offensive zone.”
Moreso than the others, the ability to understand what Simon brings–and what he doesn’t–is important to understanding the Penguins. As we’ve written a few times (including here), Simon usually makes his line better. But he doesn’t possess a lot of finish, yet, or maybe never will. Nor does he carry a significant cap hit. Simon at $750,000 was far more valuable to the Penguins than $3.75 million worth of Tanner Pearson.
So maybe it’s time to turn down the volume of the group which includes a lot of young, talented writers still learning the game (hopefully) and a lot of fan fear. Stanley Cup champions will come and go, but the game of hockey will remain. Use this season as a learning experience that hockey has all types of players and very few are bad at hockey. Some just need the right situation. Some have skills which don’t show up on the stat sheets or advanced stat sheets. And some do have skills which hit the stat sheet but not in the same quantity as a star player.
And like so many of us in one area or another, maybe it’s time to break free from the group.