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