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PHN Numbers: Johnson-Letang are Bad Pair, But What are the Options?

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Pittsburgh Penguins Marcus Pettesson

It didn’t take long for the trolls and the ardent anti-Jack Johnson supporters to re-emerge from the shadows to which they were banished. By most accounts, the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was having a stable and steady year. The common phrase which preceded a Johnson opinion was, “I must admit…”

But the last few weeks have been trying for everyone. The decimated Penguins blue line without Brian Dumoulin and John Marino has been a patchwork of pairing by necessity instead of pairing for strength. Chief among the pairing by necessity results is the Penguins top pair with Johnson and Kris Letang.

The Los Angeles Kings burned them for the only even strength goal-against during the Penguins 2-1 loss to LA. Adding more salt to the wound, the goal stood at the game-winner.

Ergo, Jack Johnson is a terrible defenseman worthy of buyout calculators, public scorn, and the ridiculousness which social media brings.

The Penguins struggles will soon be over. Dumoulin and Marino were participants at the Penguins late afternoon practice in California yesterday, and doctors have cleared both for contact. You can read more here. 

But the Pittsburgh Penguins must play several more games before both are ready, especially Dumoulin, who will likely need to build his conditioning before returning to game action. Last season, Justin Schultz practiced for a few weeks with full contact before he was ready for games after he missed several months due to a broken leg. Dumoulin has lost most of three months.

So the Johnson-Letang pairing will be a lightning rod for all that is unholy, wrong, and every ill-feeling of some Penguins fans.

The pair hasn’t been a good matchup. Johnson is a steady, stay-home defender, but he’s had trouble adjusting to Letang’s freelancing ways. The disparity has highlighted Dumoulin’s value and importance to the team.

The pairing is underwater in every statistical category. Both have a lower Corsi when paired together (46%), shots-for (44%), and the most critical metric, goals-for (42%).

When not playing with Letang, Johnson has a goals-for rating of 56%. When not paired with Johnson, Letang has a goals-for rating of 60%. All stats according to NatrualStatTrick.com and their line tool. 

This season, when Johnson is on the ice, Penguins goalies have a .944 save percentage (and THAT is his value, in a nutshell. Re-read that stat if you must). However, when Johnson-Letang is together, the save percentage has fallen to .908.

The pairing is like a hate buffet. For those who hated the Penguins free-agency acquisition of a stay-home defender with bad Corsi, this has been like Christmas, again. For those who eagerly await a Letang miscue to prove a longstanding aversion, there have been enough to satisfy.

But what are the options?

Right now, there is only one: Marcus Pettersson, who has also been struggling. Coaches have mostly paired Pettersson with Justin Schultz, but during Schultz’s two injury absences, he played with John Marino. Pettersson’s stats are even across the board. His Corsi, shots-for, scoring chances, and goals-for are all within the 49-51% range.

That is below the team average on all fronts, especially goals.

However, in limited ice time with Letang (59 minutes), Pettersson’s stats spike to a 54% Corsi, 62% scoring chance rate, and the team scored five goals while allowing only one (83%).

Johnson has value to the Penguins. He is the goalie’s best friend, and the on-ice save percentage shows his worth. Johnson is their best penalty killer, too. But Johnson isn’t meant for top-pairing minutes against the top competition with a freelancing defenseman.

If the pairing continues, Letang must simplify his game. Ok, ok, you can laugh at that thought. I did.

The more straightforward answer is the pairing should not continue. Despite Pettersson’s struggles against the tougher teams, the Penguins must try that pairing. Four losses in a row usually mean a little bit of tinkering.

Johnson and Schultz were the reliable second pair until injuries to Schultz and Dumoulin tore at the Pittsburgh Penguins continuity. That pair can continue. And soon it could be Johnson-Marino.

But it should not be Johnson-Letang. They’re crushing each other, and it’s not a coincidence when the top-pair is sputtering, so too is the team. Wednesday night was a tipping point in which the incompatibility was too great to ignore.

The other option, the only option, is Pettersson, and the tiny sample size says it can work. It probably can’t be worse, and the rebuilding Anaheim Ducks are the perfect opponent for a test run.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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