Okay, let’s talk about Jack Johnson.
This weekend brought us the latest installment of his 2019 redemption saga (this time via the Post-Gazette) and it definitely created a bit of a stir, as tends to happen when ole double-J is the subject matter.
If you haven’t read it (it is here) the basic rundown is as follows: Everyone blames Johnson for everything bad that happens, but he’s playing his best hockey as a Penguin and look at how much better he is than you think he is.
I get why the Penguins go to bat for Johnson as often as they do. He’s their player, they signed him, they are going to try and make it work and look good. But I don’t get why anyone outside the organization has taken the criticism to heart so much and feels the need to push back. The criticism of the signing was valid based on his overall body of work throughout his career. The criticism of his play in relation to that contract has also been extremely valid. It was a questionable signing, and his actual on-ice play last year did nothing to change that perception as it was a continuation of the way he had played for several years.
It’s not personal. It’s business. That’s life in professional sports. But I’ve already gotten into that more than I want to because it’s taking away from the actual issue at hand here.
The issue: has Jack Johnson really been better this season, and is it anything more than clearing a very low bar that was established last year?
The answer to both of those questions is yes.
First, let’s take a look at some comparisons here (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick) as we look at the Penguins’ 5-on-5 performance with Johnson on the ice this season vs. this same date last season and vs, the entire 2018-19 season.
The numbers we are looking at here: Corsi percentage (shot attempt share), Shot attempts for per 60 minutes (CF/60), shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), Expected goals for and against per 60 minutes (xGF/60 and xGA/60), scoring chances against per 60 minutes (SCA/60), and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (HDSCA/60).
Offensively speaking his game remains a black hole. Pucks do not get directed toward the other team’s net and they do not generate many scoring chances or expected goals with him on the ice. Just does not happen.
The defensive performance? It is dramatically better across the board. Shot attempts against, expected goals against, scoring chances against, it is all better, and not by a small margin. Those are significant improvements.
Part of that is due to the Penguins as a team playing better defensively and having a better defensive unit.
With players like Olli Matta, Erik Gudbranson, and Jamie Oleksiak out of the picture and replaced by a full season of Marcus Pettersson and the revelation that has been John Marino the defense has more mobility, is younger, and is simply better.
The forwards are also significantly better defensively thanks to the additions of Dominik Kahun, Brandon Tanev, a full season of Jared McCann, and some promising young call-ups that have fit in quite well.
They have better personnel, they are playing within the system better, and they are producing better results.
Here is a team-wide comparison of the defensive performance using the same time periods above.
That is not just an improved defensive team, it is one of the best defensive teams in the entire league.
We are talking Stanley Cup level defensive play here.
Given that, it’s not hard to understand why Johnson’s overall numbers are better. The entire team is better.
But here’s the thing: His improvement defensively has exceeded the improvement of the team as a whole. A year ago he was the worst performing defenseman on the team across the board, offensively and defensively, on what was a very bad defensive team. This year the offensive contributions are still among the worst on the team, but the defensive contributions have been ... pretty good.
Just to give you an idea as to how that stacks up, just take a look at where he ranks in each category among Penguins defensemen that have played at least 150 minutes, versus where he ranked a year ago.
Again, the offense is a black hole, and that is never going to change given his skillset. He’s just not a player that is going to drive offense. But he really has defended pretty well, not only compared to his previous performance, but in relation to the rest of an already good defensive team.
And do you know what? I am totally fine with that performance if he can keep giving the Penguins that in his role.
His game is boring.
He is basically trying to play to a 0-0 tie every shift. In the 4-5-6 role they’ve used him in (his minutes have increased recently with the absence of Brian Dumoulin, but he’s still clearly behind at least three or four defenders on the roster in terms of who they lean on) that is completely acceptable.
He does nothing to drive the offense, but he is not only not hurting them defensively, he is actually contributing to the defense.
That is more than last year, and it is also more than simply clearing a low bar.
The contract is still a long-term issue and if they could move it that would probably be for the best.
His improvement this year does not make previous criticisms invalid.
But he has improved his game, he is more than just a passenger defensively this season, and he deserves credit for that.