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What Would Penguins Defense Look Like Without Jack Johnson?

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Penguins Jack Johnson trade talk

It is not just a question fans have asked, but it is a question which the Pittsburgh Penguins management has undoubtedly asked itself, as well. As Penguins GM Jim Rutherford searches for salary cap room, Jack Johnson is a likely Penguins trade candidate. What would the Penguins defense pairings look like with the subtraction of Johnson for salary cap purposes?

Well, in fairness, perhaps a few fans haven’t asked the question as much as demanded it.

On July 1, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford defended his blue line as “Good enough,’ but also said, “You can always improve your defense,” and he said, “It’s not the best in the league.”

The look of the Penguins defense without Johnson is not as simple or easy as one may think. The Penguins defense is a precarious balance of right and left-handed shooters, a little bit of offensive prowess and a lot more defensive ability, physicality concentrated in a pair of defenders, and an otherwise lack of pedigree.

After suffering through more broken pairs than a Hollywood marriage counselor, the Justin Schultz returned from injury in mid-February and the Penguins acquired Erik Gudbranon on Feb. 25. After a little more juggling, the Penguins found their pairs.

The defense settled and even prospered using Brian Dumoulin with Kris Letang, Johnson with Schultz, and Marcus Pettersson with Gudbranson.

The defense from that point had some of the best suppression numbers in the league. No kidding. PHN readers have seen and heard them ad nauseam: Fourth fewest scoring chances allowed, second-fewest high-danger scoring chances and fewest goals allowed in the NHL.

The Pairings

So, the first and most obvious pairings without Johnson are:

Dumoulin-Letang

Pettersson-Schultz

Riikola-Gudbranson

RedBeard's Pittsburgh

However, move one defenseman, and the Jenga tower crashes. Could Pettersson play with Schultz? Sure, but would that not create a remarkably soft pairing? Which defenseman would defend and battle in the dirty zones or the net among Pettersson Schultz? The lack of physical strength on the second pairing could become an Achilles heel which diminishes two good defensemen.

Could young defenseman Juuso Riikola hop into the third pairing with Gudbranson? Maybe. However, guess the one Penguins defenseman with worse advanced statistics than Johnson.

Yep, Riikola had a brutal Corsi rating near 40% which does stand in contrast to the eye test which was far more kind to Riikola.

Under the scenario in which Rutherford deals Johnson but does not add a defenseman, they would likely have a lesser second and third pairing. Riikola would need to take more than one small step, he would need to take a giant leap (Apollo 11 reference) to maintain the competence which Pettersson brought to the third pair.

Some have suggested inserting depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. We’ll just politely skip over that one to avoid unnecessary negativity towards the player or those who have advocated it. Needless to say, it could work for small stretches but that’s not a long term solution.

The Penguins defense is greater than the sum of its parts. Welcome to the Penguins dilemma. To remove one piece, like Johnson, leaves a weaker defense.

And not just a weaker defense, but to ship out Johnson for the cash savings could require multiple moves to get back to its “good enough” current level. The above defense, after some fans ceased celebrations, would more likely be exposed than successful.

The true answer to the appearance of the Penguins defense after Johnson would in fact not end with the trade but the questions and the needs would begin.

What happens when the Penguins use the recouped cash from the Johnson trade to sign Pettersson but have additional needs caused by the lack of the Penguins best penalty killer, a defenseman with precious few turnovers, and the strong back to engage in defensive zone puck battles? The Penguins would be stuck with the above configuration but have the need for at least one new pairing.

With some irony, Johnson’s contract may mean the Penguins must include an additional asset to facilitate a deal, especially during the Summer of 2019’s stingy trade market in which the cap-space teams are putting the screws to teams without cap space. However, to trade Johnson with or without an asset attached would likely put Rutherford in another hole in which he must spend a second asset to fix the defense.

Johnson could cost the Penguins two assets; they would spend one asset in order to deal him and one asset spent to replace him.

That’s not necessarily good business. So, what would the Penguins look like after a Johnson trade? The answer would depend on the follow-up trade…which is another reason we very well could see Jack Johnson remain a Pittsburgh Penguin.

To offer a little hope to those who’ve subscribed to the angry social media mob, Johnson had over 40 points with Columbus just a few years ago. He was a solid defender for the second half and sometimes it takes a full season to acclimate to new surroundings. For example, Paul Martin and Sergei Gonchar. At worst, the Penguins will have the second-half version of Johnson, if a deal isn’t made.

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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.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Eric

    July 19, 2019 at 9:18 am

    I still dream of a scenario where we move shultz and rust for for ristolainen. I think that would eliminate our salary cap crunch, bring in a young d-man who isn’t soft looking for a fresh start that Gonchar could work on with term, and still leave us with good d depth. Lines look like this
    Doumlin Letang
    Peterson Ristolainen
    Johnson Gudbranson
    Riikola Ruhwedel
    GMJR make it happen!

  2. Zach Smith

    July 19, 2019 at 10:05 am

    Maybe we can trade Johnson & Rust (who is replaced by Tanev) for a 1st pairing caliber defensive defenseman to play on the 2nd pairing?

  3. O

    July 19, 2019 at 11:08 am

    I actually don’t have a big problem with Johnson. At least he provides some physical presence in front of that. I’ve certainly seen worse defenseman on the Penguins. Bring back Cole.

  4. BIG B

    July 19, 2019 at 11:10 am

    ERIC that Rust Schultz trade for Risto is the exact trade i have been hoping for as it frees up the cap and forward log jam and and gives us a big strong puck moving point producer.If such a trade could be made they could trade JJ if they wanted and have size and strenght on all 3 pairs.Dan if Riikola can’t take his one giant step for Penskind he could always fake it instead of make it——JUST KIDDING.

  5. dean

    July 19, 2019 at 11:49 am

    Dan, where are you getting your CF% from?

    This site has JJ at 45.94% and Riikola at 45.24%.

    http://corsica.hockey/skater-stats/

    • Dan Kingerski

      July 19, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      The Riikola Corsi was 40% from Feb. 23. I did a poor job of specifying that.

      • dean

        July 19, 2019 at 2:28 pm

        From what I can see Riikola played 3 games after Feb 22.

        The pens went 2-0-1 – the numbers I can see right now look good. Can you share with us your calculations to get close to 40% in those 3 games?

        Feb 26 against CBJ 14mins
        Mar 1- Sabers 12.5 mins
        Mar 2 – Habs 15 mins

        That is 41.5 mins of his 617 mins (6.7% of his total ice time). Very small sample size.

        • Hatrick Pornqvist

          July 19, 2019 at 3:33 pm

          It’s only 3 games but Dan’s numbers are correct as per NST. Riikola is pretty much dead last by a wide margin in nearly every category for that stretch. He led in on ice shooting percentage and save percentage, which are largely due to team play, but the individual stats suggest he was the worst defender on the team from Feb 23 to the end of the season. Still, only 3 games do a much deeper look is needed to get a decent read on things.

          If you look at the three games individually there are some interesting things.

          Against CBJ Riikola played most of his minutes with Trotman who had a 63% CF%, but Riikola’s was 43%.

          Against BUF, a game that the pens dominated but lost in overtime thanks to Sheary, again Riikola and Trotman played a lot together, and both did well with CF% over 60%.

          The Montreal game was when Sid scored 20 seconds in and we were up 3-0 by the 8 minute mark and 4-0 early in the second. Team Corsi was pretty low in this game, we were crushed as a matter of fact (67-33) but a lot of that is likely due to score effects. Again Riikola and Trotman spent most of their time together with CF% of 25 and 23 respectively. This was the last we saw of Riikola.

          Tough to get much of a read on Riikola from this small sample, and one game plays a big role in dragging down his corsi, but a synopsis of his play in these games probably wouldn’t be glowing by any means.

          Overall his numbers on the year are probably a much better indicator of what he was last year. Even then it’s not a great sample size. My biggest question would be is he ready for 100+ games including playoffs? Coaches like to know what they have. I’m not sure they know they yet.

          • dean

            July 19, 2019 at 3:50 pm

            Here is the problem. In statistics, statistical sample size is a critical part. There are 6 independent variables in calculation CF%. You need a sample size of 30 when there is just 3 independent variables. In this case you need a sample size of 60 not 3. The 3 is simple insignificant and therefor meaningless. He only played 37 games which is not even technically enough.

          • dean

            July 19, 2019 at 4:53 pm

            BTW, that also means the sample size Dan is using for JJ, 21 or 22, games is also grossly insufficient and therefor meaningless.

            That is why significant historical data is the best predictor of future performance.

      • Bob Lewisberry

        July 23, 2019 at 8:09 pm

        Yeah and a poor job using Corsi as a stand-alone metric to define a players advanced stats. Maybe hold off on those stats references until you understand them. I’m not sure what’s worse though – that or this awful take.

        • Dan Kingerski

          July 24, 2019 at 6:22 am

          Fortunately, most people understand in a 1000 word story such a reference is a quick summary point and another 1000 words explaining each point is not needed.

  6. dean

    July 19, 2019 at 11:59 am

    BTW, Schultz had a 45.15% – CF% but he had a 54.29 – GF%.

    Riikola had a 53.85% – GF%

    JJ had a 43.4%- GF%

    What is interesting is Riikola is tracking Schultz even though he was paired a lot with JJ and Maatta.

  7. Hatrick Pornqvist

    July 19, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    Hey Dan,

    What do you think the timeline is for when Rutherford will actually execute the deal, whatever it may be?

    I know that behind the scenes there are all kinds of things happening that it is dependent on. Agreeing to term and salary with MP, deals that have tabled with other teams and when those teams need to have them completed, and ZAR’s arbitration all have ramifications for whatever trade we make to clear cap space.

    Do you have any sources or insights with respect to this kind of thing? I ask because I think it would be good for the team (and the fans!) if this were done sooner than later.

  8. Hatrick Pornqvist

    July 19, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Rossi in live chat on the Athletic says he doesn’t think there’s much chance of Johnson being moved, and never was much of one other than the Minnesota thing.

    He’s saying Bjugstad is being made available.

  9. Alex

    July 19, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    If you wanna clear cap space I’d say trade Rust and JJ plus a pick for Risto cause he’s younger and actually a safer bet than Schultz and has more term, then flip Schultz for a LD or a forward, if you get a decent C that’s cheap then flip Bjuds for something I personally like Hutton, he had a good season with Vancouver then a bad one, a cheap 2 year deal with him to replace JJ would be perfect, he would fit as a solid third line guy who would get sheltered minuets. Another change that would help is swapping Guds and bring in in the RFA RD from Dallas as he could be cheap and have offensive upside on the third pair in sheltered minutes. Ik a lot of change isn’t gonna happen to our defense but a defense of Dumo-Tanger Petterson-Risto Hutton-Honka looks good to me and should be about 3.5-5.5 mil cheaper. The money saved on the defense could go to extensions or a guy like Brian Boyle or another cheap forward to try and ad depth.

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