Hell hath no fury like the Twitterverse when an object of scorn does not acquiesce. Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson were the targets of never-ending criticism and confusion. Gudbranson who was acquired from Vancouver at the trade deadline admitted struggles as fans in western Canada highlighted those deficiencies. Meanwhile, Johnson was blamed by Penguins Twitter for everything from Phil Kessel’s down year to the rushed final season of Game of Thrones.
Johnson was the guilty party because of poor analytics before the season began and Gudbranson was guilty before his plane landed in Pittsburgh.
And a funny thing happened, as the Penguins tightened their game beginning with the Stadium Series Game on Feb. 23 and finishing with the final game of the regular season, the controversial defensemen started to receive praise. Especially Gudbranson received good tidings as he was immediately good with the Penguins and did not falter.
After so much was invested in proving Johnson’s fallibility, acceptance proved harder but was there was much after the defenseman rallied with solid play in the second half. Johnson’s plus/minus stat eventually finished at minus-4, which was worlds better than the negative 17 which he achieved in the first half of the season.
(and yes, yes, plus/minus isn’t a perfect stat, but as a cumulative stat, it does have some weight).
The Penguins defense as a whole provided less offense in the final two months of the season because much of it was played with Kris Letang but the unit provided a higher level of play than any Penguins corps has in several years. The March of the Penguins II built on defensive stinginess; Johnson and Gudbranson were significant parts of that.
Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson Report Cards
Jack Johnson: C+
This is a groupthink free zone. Johnson is a defensive defenseman whose strengths were physicality and keeping the net front clear. In those areas, Johnson was successful. He was very successful in those endeavors, actually.
Johnson pounded opponents with 233 hits and blocked 147 shots. Both stats led the Penguins. Coaches also let it be known they felt Johnson was often their best penalty killer.
For the open-minded, Johnson was very good in his own zone.
However, Johnson provided almost painfully little offensive push. The last two seasons have been Johnson’s worst offensive years. Just three seasons ago, Johnson poured 40 points (8g, 32a) for Columbus. This season, he scored just 13 points including only one goal.
Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan and Jacques Martin elected to keep the left-handed Johnson on the right side for most of the season. Johnson’s contributions were limited by the right side angles. After watching Brian Dumoulin excel on the right side late in the season, hindsight shows it was a mistake to let Johnson languish on the right.
Until Johnson flipped to the left when Justin Schultz returned in mid-February, opponents took advantage of Johnson on his backhand by aggressively forechecking the defenseman. Opponents forced Johnson to chip pucks off the glass to alleviate pressure but that tactic also ceded possession.
However, get this: Johnson committed only 32 turnovers. On a team known for giveaways, Johnson’s low total stood in stark contrast. Opposing forwards rarely beat Johnson individually.
Another important factor is the Penguins “five-man unit” or rather the lack thereof. The Penguins defensemen as a whole did not have as much help for the first 50 games. The defensemen didn’t have enough outlets or players coming back to help, especially on the Penguins second and third lines. As a result, everyone looked bad.
Johnson does have below 50% advanced statistics. To harp on that aspect without acknowledging his strengths is like accounting but only counting the debits and not the credits. Fans, media, humans can skewer any player if their positives aren’t included.
A few more points would have pushed Johnson to a B range–he was that solid in the d-zone. A second season with the Penguins system and a little more help could raise Johnson’s numbers.
Erik Gudbranson: B+
Tabbed one of the worst defensemen in the league by Vancouver fans, Gudbranson was a powerful force for the Penguins. The positives aren’t hard to find. Gudbranson provided safe cover for the Penguins stars during the toughest part of the season. When the Penguins played the Washington Capitals, lightning rod forward Tom Wilson went for Gudbranson, not Sidney Crosby. Call that a win unto itself.
Gubdranson’s contributions go well beyond what didn’t happen to others. His play earned him a stable position in the lineup. His right-handed shot finally stabilized the Penguins defense with righties on all three pairings. Gudbranson’s work with Marcus Pettersson was as surprising as it was good.
The Penguins third pair defense not only provided good defense, but they also pushed some offense, too. Gudbranson’s advanced metrics were well above 50%. His Corsi at 54% and his scoring chance ratio (the important one) was 58%.
Importantly, Gudbranson also was not often beaten individually. There were a few bobbles…just like every other defenseman in the league.
Gudbranson played nearly 19 minutes per game with the Penguins. He threw 52 hits and committed only seven turnovers. Extrapolated over the course of a full season, Gudbranson would have delivered about 208 hits and made only 28 turnovers.
And protected the Penguins stars.
General Manager Jim Rutherford defended the Gudbranson trade by saying he had additional skills which Vancouver didn’t mine. Rutherford proved correct.
The Penguins may have a real find with Gudbranson. His locker room leadership is also renowned. Perhaps he will step forward next season. Gudbranson had two assists in 19 games and that is the only reason he did not receive an A.