After last Thursday’s 9-1 destruction of the Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan had the perfect opportunity to go off on a tangent and make a point about defenseman Jack Johnson.
Johnson has been routinely criticized since there were even rumors the Pens would sign him. Then his bloated five-year contract was officially inked and since then he’s generated a lot of negativity around all corners of the internet and social media for a career worth of terrible results and the impending dread it would carry over to Pittsburgh.
That dread was realized in a game last week where the Pens defeated Edmonton 6-5 in spite of Johnson being on the ice for all five Oilers goals.
With that fresh in mind, and coming off a big win, the stage was right for Sullivan to launch a defense of his beleaguered defenseman.
I think Jack’s quietly played a sound game for us. I don’t think he always gets some of the credit he deserves. For example, I know that there’s talk that he’s on the ice for five goals against. Well, the reality is when you break down the involvement of those goals, he had no responsibility for any of those goals against. He just happened to be on the ice for them. We try to look at the game a whole lot closer than just hey, a guy is on the ice when a goal is scored because a lot can happen in a team game. What I will say is that Jack has quietly adjusted to the style of play that we’re trying to play here in Pittsburgh. We believe he’s a solid defenseman. The fact that he scores here tonight [against Calgary], hopefully, will give him a big boost of confidence.”
While these supportive words were totally dismissive of any wrongdoing on Johnson’s part, Sullivan’s actions of usage for Johnson have painted a different picture of what the coach thinks about the play. Ice time never lies.
Mike Sullivan pumped Jack Johnson's tires after the infamous 5-goal Edmonton game, but the ice-time distribution since then, especially without the team's top two defenders, paints a different picture. pic.twitter.com/rBchMJZ8vz— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) October 31, 2018
Game 11 (last night) was more of the same - Johnson finished with 14:42 even strength time, ranking him 6/6 among defensemen on the team in ES usage. Johnson got a power play shift so he played 16:14 overall. In this game Kris Letang (coming off an injury) played 26:01. Brian Dumoulin played 23:47, Olli Maatta got 20:26, even Jamie Oleksiak had 19:30 total TOI.
With that in mind, the picture is developing into a clear trend that in Games 8-11 of the season Sullivan has shifted Johnson into a more sheltered and limited role. (The Edmonton game was, you guessed it, Game 7 of the season).
Oh, and last night the Pens gave up one even strength goal against. His fault or not, guess who just happened to be on the ice for it?
The Penguins are seeming to find out what many have been warning since the summer- that Jack Johnson’s career is one where his team is out-shot, out-chanced and out-scored by significant, meaningful margins when he is on the ice, compared to when he is on it.
Finding a place has been challenging for Sullivan so far. He’s paired Johnson with three different partners for 40+ 5v5 minutes already (Chad Ruhwedel, Juuso Riikola, Olli Maatta) and no combination has come close to even generously say it’s been passable.
In fact, those three pairs (Johnson-Ruhwedel, Johnson-Riikola, Maatta-Johnson) have combined for 130 5v5 minutes played and the Penguins have scored 0 goals and given up 11 goals against, while having a Corsi For% in the 47% range.
No matter who is at fault or at blame or if it’s all just one weird coincidence that somehow this always seems to follow Johnson around, the results are absolutely dreadful with him on the ice with any of the Penguins non-elite defenders. And the data says there’s no coincidence - Johnson is worst among Pens defensemen in scoring chances allowed (85 in 170 5v5 minutes) and also high danger scoring chances allowed (38). Johnson’s 45.2% Corsi For% is only better among team blueliners than Schultz (injured after 3 games) and the rookie Riikola. In other words, it’s no real mistake, accident or particular amount of bad luck that bad things are happening while Johnson is on the ice.
For Mike Sullivan’s words, he can’t (and doesn’t) ignore the results. This trend is noticeable that despite attempting to use several different partners and roles the only constant in Jack Johnson being on the ice allowing a ton of scoring chances and goals against is...Jack Johnson himself. As a result, he has been playing less the last few games.
Now the question becomes - in what is still a long season with an awful long ways to go, is this a new normal? Can Johnson find some sort of traction as a 3rd pair guy and be able to positively contribute? Or if these performances continue will Sullivan have the guts to do what he did last year with another free agent signing bust in Matt Hunwick and come to the realization he has six better defenders and options to dress for games?
And sure, it’s early and still a very small sample but a trend is developing and the season is coming into focus a bit more and more. Jack Johnson is who he is and there’s a lot of data to support that. It’s very unlikely he’s going to turn into the “good” defensemen that can play top-4 minutes and help the team big time that management tried to sell the fanbase on over the summer. Now the question looks to be more damage control and just how much slack the coaching staff will give before the games take on more importance.
Because eleven games in, despite putting on a brave public face to help inspire the player, coach Mike Sullivan’s decisions are telling a different story when it comes to Jack Johnson.