I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Penguins free agency signing get the reaction that Jack Johnson’s did over the summer.
There were two very different schools of thought on what his five-year, $17 million contract meant for the Penguins, and neither side was willing to give an inch on their position.
Thought 1: An objective, numbers based approach that saw a defender who had consistently posted some of the worst on-ice numbers in the league over the past decade, both in terms of shot differential and goal differential, no matter what team he had played on, no matter who his defense partner was, and no matter the quality of the team he was on. No matter the circumstances his teams always performed worse (and significantly so) when he was on the ice versus when he was not. In short, he is not a particularly good NHL defender.
Giving such a player a five-year contract seemed to be ... bizarre.
(For the record — I would be considered part of that group)
Thought 2: Johnson’s performance and play can’t be boiled down to numbers, and that he just needed a better situation where he could excel.
While the term may have been long, the dollar value isn’t that outrageous for what might be a second-or third-pairing defender and the Penguins have had some success working with reclamation projects on defense in the past. So just give it a chance.
Obviously we can’t draw any definitive conclusions from four games but I do find it incredible that Jack Johnson has already given everybody exactly what they thought he would.
If you believe in the numbers, Johnson has been okay but with some of the flaws that have always seemed to exist in his performance.
His possession numbers are, overall, quite bad.
That is mostly due to the fact the team is not generating any sustained offense when he is on the ice. His shot suppression numbers are actually pretty good, especially when compared to whatever it is the rest of the team is doing defensively.
But while the shot suppression numbers are very good, the goals against numbers are not, which has been a common theme throughout Johnson’s career — when he is on the ice, his teams give up goals. A lot of goals.
So if you saw Johnson as a defensive liability that that would help bleed goals against when he is on the ice, you have seen that so far.
But he has also made some plays and made some positive contributions. Every once in a while you see the skating ability, and you see the ability to make the strong outlet pass, and you see the blocked shots. So if you saw Johnson as a good hockey player that defies the numbers, you have seen that so far, too.
This, in a nutshell, is what Jack Johnson’s career has always been.
He is one of those players that will always give you exactly what you think he will give you based on your pre-determined thoughts on what he is. He is basically the defender version of former Capitals/Hurricanes forward Alexander Semin. With Semin, when you looked at the actual on-ice performance you could see a star player, and many people did. If you went with the eye-test, you saw a talented underachiever that never lived up to the hype that was never worth wasting time or a roster spot on (and many people did see that).
I think a lot of it comes down to Johnson having all of the physical traits you want in a defenseman. He has size, he can skate, he can be physical and isn’t afraid to throw his body in front of a shot. When he entered the NHL more than a decade ago he had the pedigree of a top draft pick that was supposed to be a superstar and nobody in the NHL seems to want to admit they were wrong about him, no matter what the actual performance looks like.
That leads to a disconnect on what he is as a player.
The truth, as it always is in these matters, is probably somewhere in the middle.
Having said all of that, the injury to Justin Schultz on Saturday night is going to put even more pressure on Johnson to be the player the second group above expects him to be.
Even though we don’t yet know the extent of Schultz ’s injury, it looked bad, and it looked like he is going to miss some time, leaving an already questionable defense a little thinner.
Update: Schultz is out four months
Schultz isn’t without his own flaws as a player, but he does bring a dimension and an element to the lineup that no one other than Kris Letang can bring. It is a big hole on a defense that really can not afford one.
That means everyone else has to step up, including Johnson.
So far, the Penguins’ big free agent acquisition has been okay.
He hasn’t been the disaster critics of the signing (right here) thought he would be. I also don’t know that he’s been great. But with the Penguins losing one of their top returning defenders and an impactful offensive presence from the blue line I think we can all agree that the Penguins are going to need Johnson to become more of the player the optimistic side expects him to be.