I’m going to spare you all and skip the part of this article where I talk about my disdain for the Jack Johnson signing and instead quickly dive into the best ways to utilize the new defensemen out on the ice.
Johnson’s eagerness to get started with the Penguins in a fresh, new city has been readily documented after his signing day and throughout the current preseason, and all of those stories are incredibly uplifting to a fanbase that doesn’t particularly agree with the move Jim Rutherford made. But now that Johnson is getting in the mix in these early exhibition games, the fast-twitch critiques of his game are already filling messages boards to the point of bursting.
It’s well-known that Johnson isn’t a particularly defensive-minded player, and he centers most of his focus around defensive zone breakouts to transition the puck up ice and position himself to join the rush to set up scoring chances. To a Penguins team that uses an up-tempo style, focusing on a suffocating forecheck that includes breakouts, rushes, and transitions, a defenseman who is not only looking for that kind of play in the defensive zone, but actively accomplishing it, sounds like a match made in heaven...right?
During his time in Columbus, Johnson demonstrated this method often, and because of it, his zone entry statistics were excellent in the offensive end.
When it comes to breaking out on the rush, Johnson is a laureate, and his ability to slot in as a puck-moving defenseman on a lower d-pairing will be extremely helpful in the offensive zone. He also has a cannon of a shot, one that Mike Sullivan was very impressed with upon Johnson’s arrival to Pittsburgh and calls a “bomb.” His shot contribution statistics, listed above, are a testament to that, and it’ll be nice to have a scoring threat coming from the blue line on all three lines.
Playing in his own zone, however, is where you’ll find a lot of Johnson’s struggles. On tape, Johnson’s mobility is steady, and he is a decent defender when it comes to the opposing teams first pass into the attacking zone. His problems are found via the products of his aggressive breakout fixation. Johnson is seen either out of place, out of position, or just floating around somewhere often, rather than placing himself between the net and the opposing players carrying the puck. This causes teams to regularly out-shoot and out-chance the team Johnson’s on while he’s on the ice, and that’s not something the Penguins need.
Enter Olli Maatta.
Johnson and Maatta have seen ice time with each other as partners during this preseason, and I think it’s the perfect pairing combination of two guys with two similar, but different skill sets.
Maatta isn’t particularly known for being an offensive-minded guy, even though his numbers and collected points show that he’ll become that type of player in an effective way when called upon. His assistance in the attacking zone is shown beautifully in the above chart, and his neutral zone numbers speak for themselves. His minor faults lie in possession exits — the exact same place Johnson generally excels.
Pairing an offensive-minded and defensive-minded guy together is nothing new for Sullivan and Co. Kris Letang (offense) plays most of his minutes with Brian Dumoulin (defense), and Justin Schultz (offense) has primarily seen time with Jamie Oleksiak (defense). Even Juuso Riikola, the aggressive breakout player from training camp with sharp offensive instincts, has seen time with a defense-minded player most regularly. The Maatta-Johnson pairing would be nothing out of the ordinary.
I understand that both guys are left-handed shots, and configuring defensive duos with opposite handedness is more ideal, but consider that Johnson has played a lot of minutes on the right side of the ice this preseason. Not only has he done it, and done it well enough, but he’s willing to do it as often as needed, showing flexibility with a defensive corps that has a few question marks still surrounding it. This is a huge development, as shifting to the side of the ice opposite your shot isn’t easy — just ask Ian Cole and Matt Hunwick.
Sullivan has already warmed to the idea of a Maatta-Johnson pairing:
“If Olli and Jack show some chemistry, that could be a defense pair that could play against any line in the league,” he said. “Obviously, we have (Dumoulin and Letang) that can play against anyone. We’re just trying to explore different combinations to see what might jump out at us. The encouraging thing is that we have options with the people that we have. We’ve got Jamie Oleksiak that can play the right side, and Jack Johnson can play the right side as well.”
If Johnson can provide that breakout rush and Maatta can cover up Johnson’s gap control blips, this pairing could be a tough matchup for teams with little defensive depth as their in-game lines changes occur.