With the rampant “reports” and “sources” that place the Pittsburgh Penguins about to sign veteran free agent defenseman Jack Johnson on Sunday, we reached out to our friends at Jackets Cannon. Pale Dragon was there with some snappy answers.
If you know or have read anything about Johnson, it’s that he barely can tie his skates and sometimes remembers which end of the hockey stick to place on the ice. You would think he’s that bad from reading the reports and looking at all sorts of charts and graphs and designs. But we wanted to see from the Blue Jackets perspective, the folks that know him best, what their thoughts were and if the narratives and talking points on Johnson are credible from their perspective.
Most fans tend to err on the side of valuing their players, but that doesn’t look to be the case in this instance. And, to be upfront, I even tried to tone the questions as neutral-to-friendly, fishing for some “best case scenario” type outlook, since so much coverage of Johnson has been so negative. As it turns out, we’ll see where all the negativity comes from.
#1: First things first, a lot of the Jack Johnson myth/narrative surrounds his bankruptcy/financial issues. How much of those linger and what is the outlook moving forward?
Jackets Cannon: The case is resolved, but it’s still very much an issue. As part of the bankruptcy settlement, his wage has been garnished, so all but $246,000 of his annual salary has gone to pay off his creditors. He lost most of that $30.5 million contract he signed 7 years ago. Per that settlement if his next contract is at least $4.5 million total over at least 3 years, the remainder of the debt is paid in the amount of 10% of that contract. The rest he can put towards rebuilding his nest egg. He’s certainly kicking himself now for turning down a 7 year, $22 million offer last summer.
(Pensburgh Aside: Well that’s comforting to know, I suppose, that for all the easy jokes about Johnson’s financial status it’s mostly in the background. Also if the conditions are as cut and dry and black and white as that link suggests, he’s got no incentive to sign for $3.5-$4.0 million bucks, as a fee is imposed. If only the ruling was like $2.5 million, eh?)
#2: Jack Johnson doesn’t look great on charts, advanced stats, and bar graphs but that aside (and $$$ issues totally aside) what would your scouting report of his game be as a fan who has gotten to see him play a ton lately.
JC: The stats and charts aren’t lying. He failed the eye test as well. The best part of his game had always been his size and speed. I think those things covered for his lack of hockey sense. Now that he’s past 30 and his skills are declining, his poor decision making is laid bare for all to see. If someone scored off a pass or rebound to the back side of the play, chances are that person was supposed to be covered by Johnson but he got caught roving.
#3: Johnson’s role faded on the Blue Jackets last year, was it a matter or personality clashes with the coach? Or performance-based? Similarly, judging Ian Cole vs. Jack Johnson, from what you saw, would you say they are about comparable skill levels and styles?
JC: Johnson’s benching had nothing to do with personality clashes or coaching. He and Torts seemed to get along very well, and Torts even gave him an “A” this season after stripping it from Brandon Dubinsky. The Johnson/David Savard pairing - which had been a shutdown pair in 2016-17 - was simply nowhere near as effective this season. They got split up, and whichever new pair featured Johnson suffered. It says a lot that after Ian Cole was acquired and paired with Savard that Savard began to play like the previous season, with the “Lumberjackets” filling that shutdown role. I was thrilled with the acquisition of Cole, as he was younger, cheaper, and better than Johnson. There’s not the offensive upside of Johnson at his peak, but far better defensive awareness.
(Pensburgh: This is troubling to hear and a serious warning flag.)
#4: Again, independent of any salary consideration, what do you see Johnson doing as a 31-year old in the years to come? Capable of playing second pair minutes and a lot of PK? Or lesser than that?
JC: Because I’m an optimist that generally wants to see the best in people, I think Johnson may have another couple productive years in him. But by productive, I mean a third pair guy where you say “yeah, he’s fine. He’s not winning games for us but he’s not a complete waste.” If I were coaching him and HAD to play him, it would be third pairing minutes. I would give him more offensive zone starts if possible, to take advantage of his offensive instincts. Let him play up on offense, and pair him with a partner who can cover him defensively.
Now, because I hate the Penguins I suggest that you pair him with Kris Letang and play them 30 minutes a night.
(Pensburgh: Oh no, oh no...This has gone off the rails completely and any hopes a guy just had a bad rap from a statistical piling on have about completely faded.)
#5: In your opinion, is Johnson a reliable penalty killer? Or as a player in general?
JC: I would keep him away from the PK. This article I wrote gives an example of a kill where he played his position horribly and it left his teammates out to dry. (The second one, against the Islanders)
(Pensburgh: Well this was the exact opposite of what you kinda hoped to hear, if the Pens do sign Johnson, expect the press conference to include nuggets about how he’ll be a proven addition to help the penalty kill. After reading Pale Dragon’s linked piece, that’s not seemingly rooted in realism.)
#6: Assuming you needed a defenseman and had money to spend (but certainly didn’t want to over-pay) what do you think would a “fair” contract offer to Johnson be in 2018 relative his skill/expected role+performance? There’s the obvious disclaimer that sometimes on the open market, prices get driven up by eager teams looking to add players, so I’m not asking for a salary prediction of what he MIGHT get, but rather what you think he is worth, if that makes sense.
JC: I predicted that he would get $4m x 4 years, like Kris Russell got from Edmonton. Not saying that’s what his play warrants, just saying that’s what the market could justify paying him because NHL GMs are sometimes collectively stupid. If I was forced to re-sign him for Columbus, I would give him no more than 2 years and no more than $2.5-$3 million per year. I saw that you are going to sign him between $3 and $3.5 million annually, which isn’t as bad as I expected. That 5 year term seems WAY too long. If he’s already lost a step, what is he going to look like as a 35 year old in 2022 with another year left on the deal? This smells like a compliance buyout after the next lockout.
Well, gotta admit I was hoping that the Blue Jackets blog scouting report on Johnson would be a little rosier and perhaps add a bit of a fresh perspective or some previously unexamined angle that would give even the darkest heart a bit of optimism. Instead, we got a report just confirming the worst fears of everything else that is out there.
Of course, nothing is official until Sunday, so we’ll see what comes to pass.