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Jim Rutherford stays defiant and incorrect about Jack Johnson

The Pens’ GM defends his embattled and bad defenseman.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

After winning four of the last five games, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was feeling a little froggy on Wednesday and went to bat to defend his big 2018 free agent signing Jack Johnson.

As the Trib had it:

“Jack never got a fair shot from the first day he got here, and it started with the (first) media scrum,” Rutherford said Wednesday morning. “I really couldn’t believe the questions that a newly acquired player was asked through that media scrum, and that’s what started the ball rolling toward the fans.”

First of all, that’s just patronizing to the fans — and blatantly untrue — to believe no one outside of Penguins’ HQ realized Jack Johnson was a bad hockey player prior to the media’s questions on July 1.

Hell, just look at this article here on June 29 entitled “Better options than Jack Johnson” where we took the rumors the Pens wanted to sign Johnson and offered alternatives.

Or a June 28 article on this very serious hockey website where we got a detailed scouting report from our friends in Columbus scouting Johnson’s game with our conclusion:

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.

So to pretend that the media got any sort of anti-JJ ball rolling on July 1 is clearly erroneous; any fan with a sense of the league dynamics knew long ago that Jack Johnson was a defenseman that struggled and rarely got positive results because he’s had a decade+ long career of precisely that! Whether it was here, on Reddit, Twitter, etc., there was plenty of angst and dislike for the transaction well before the move was even official.

And, whaddya know, 60 games into his stint as a Penguin this season and Pittsburgh gives up a ton more shots, chances, and goals when Johnson is on the ice. He is a drag across the board for almost every single teammate to perform worse with JJ than without him. Who could have foreseen this?

Still, Rutherford remains defiant.

“He’s played really well with (Justin) Schultz, which is easier for him because he’s playing on his natural side. I don’t think he’s been given a fair shot and overall I’ve been fine with his play.”

It’s odd for Rutherford to say Johnson hasn’t “been given a fair shot” when he’s played every single one of the 60 games this season. The coach has played him every time out, and in many ways that’s the only shot that matters, not the grumbling from fans and media questions.

Besides, there’s more than enough reason to grumble with the results Johnson has given this year.

With Johnson on the ice at 5-on-5 the Pens have scored 34 goals and given up 50, a 40.5% rate of goals for.

With Johnson not on the ice, they’ve scored 111 goals and given up 76, a 59.4% rate.

Sure hockey’s a game of a lot of variables but one that represents such a swing on results, that’s not “fine.” That’s awful.

In fact, by just the numbers Johnson’s 3.16 goals against per 60 minutes played is the second worst of his whole 13-year career. His 64.36 Corsi Events against/60 is also the second worst season he’s personally had. The 12.15 high danger chances against/60 are among the worst season he’s had. So there’s a case to be made this is one of Johnson’s personal toughest years, in a career full of getting outshot and outscored!

That’s not being mean or personal, just cut and dry statistics.

The idea the media is too rough on Johnson is curious too. We have a podcast where we’ve interviewed beat writers — everyone has eyes where they read articles. The default main stream media member will say nothing more than “yeah I know fans don’t like him but the team thinks he contributes and they love him,” and offer little to any criticism beyond that.

I get emailed Mike Sullivan’s media scrums after practice where he answers questions almost every day. The only time he was asked why Johnson was in the lineup was a game early in the season when Johnson was on the ice for like five goals against in a game. Sullivan shrugged the question away and there’s barely been any follow up from the media as to why Johnson is a lineup regular despite the fact the team struggles mightily while he’s been on the ice, no matter who he’s been partnered with.

If anything, it could be easily argued that the media is far too lenient and soft in their handling of Johnson’s performance, and Sullivan’s continued dedication to using a player with such a bad process and on-ice results.

Rutherford’s lack of accountability on Johnson remains confounding. It was in July when he said about the end of Johnson’s stint in Columbus:

“I don’t think he had a bad year, he was a healthy scratch at the end of the season. I know the reason why. It wasn’t because of how he was playing.”

Which he didn’t have any further specifics to back up, and was roundly blasted by Columbus’ GM and coach for it.

Plainly, Rutherford was wrong last summer thinking Johnson didn’t play poorly in 2017-18, and he’s still wrong now in 2018-19. There’s no other way around it.

As has been written here many times before, the Pens have made their bed when they signed Johnson this off-season, and they’re being content now to lay in it. They may have no other choice at this point. All that Rutherford’s comments today show is that they’re still blind to a painful blindspot. The only thing that should disappoint Rutherford is the one thing that seemingly doesn’t — his inability to see that the team continues to play a player that’s hurting their chances of winning.