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Johnson, Gudbranson, Simon Terrible? New Light Shines on Them

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Penguins Jack Johnson trade talk

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.

 

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Cal
Cal
2 years ago

Well said. I can’t believe some of the writer’s way of thinking.

Randal
Randal
2 years ago
Reply to  Cal

Finally an article I can agree with! And I’ll go one step further and say I wouldve kept Oleksiak I think he had upside in the Pens system. But I agree with this article 100%.

joe
joe
2 years ago

Love this article ,I text the ol 29er Ray Bourque the other nite and asked him what he thought of fans talking trash about the trade and being a player w also being a player whos coming to a team with an upset fan base.He was pissed to be polite and flat out said there not true fans.I really would rather see the guy play first before giving up on him.Chrit anyone need an incentive to like Eric G,go to youtube and watch his hit and butt kicking on Tom the trash can Wison.I think Jack s actually been real… Read more »

Skippy
Skippy
2 years ago

Good piece. While heartedly agree on Johnson and Simone. Not sold on Gudbranson yet.

Hatrick Pornqvist
Hatrick Pornqvist
2 years ago

Great article Dan. Love the analysts on the site. So much of what’s out there to read is just a couple of stats, paste in a highlight or two, talk about where they are in the standing…call it analysis. It’s not. It’s not what you do. And finding a place where not only does actual thought go into the writing, but also where the hockey internet bleepshow of trolls and mindless Corsi comments is tampered down and challenged, is very refreshing. One thing though, that a rival site (of the blogosphere nature you describe above) does well, is they make… Read more »

JC Solomon
JC Solomon
2 years ago

Dan – This is 100% spot on. I’ve been an obsessive Pens fan for over 30 years (or before, but I was a baby), and a huge fan of your work. You obviously either played or have watched a ton of hockey. The advanced stats fad/trend is laughable. They’re fine an all, but as a supplement to actually understanding the game. If people can’t see that Johnson has clearly been a top 4 d-man since Schultz’ return, or that Simon does so many “little” things right every game, or that Gudbranson’s first game was very promising, it’s on them. Keep… Read more »

Don Russell
Don Russell
2 years ago

Excellent article. I started to jump on the Hate Gubranson bandwagon before seeing him in a Pens sweater. I watched his first game and thought this cannot be the guy everyone has been railing against. He was solid, aggressive, very aware of what was going on. Same with Johnson. Being paired with Schultz and getting more minutes seems to have made a huge difference. One other insight, since Gubranson has been with the Pens it seems the entire team has started to play with a more chippy attitude.

Kevin Freeman
Kevin Freeman
2 years ago

This was a refreshing article to read after so much crybaby doom and gloom lately. I’ve actually started rooting pretty hard for Jack Johnson recently. I still don’t think he is very good, but some of the online vitriol pointed at him is just downright childish. I agree that Simon gets a bad rap because so many people wanted Sprong to be Prom King and then he wasn’t. And as the writer said, he isn’t much of a finisher, but I think he is a smart, solid player. He reminds me a lot of Kunitz in his last couple years… Read more »

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