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Investigating potential options for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get rid of Jack Johnson

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It’s time to look at just how the Pens can end our long national nightmare and move on from Jack Johnson

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

It’s Penguins’ fans biggest request this offseason, but one that might not even come through. How can the Pens get out from the contract of Jack Johnson? The veteran was signed last summer to a still ludicrous five year contract with an annual average value of $3.25 million per season.

Johnson, for his part, failed on about every aspect general manager Jim Rutherford advertised him as last summer. He was on the ice for the most goals for, he could not play either side of the ice, struggling even more mightily on his off-side, didn’t add any appreciable offense, had poor zone exit and entry issues and dragged down teammates possession-wise. It was the disaster feared upon his signing.

The biggest impediment seems to be two-folded; the four years remaining on his contract, and whether or not Johnson still exists in the blind spot of Penguins’ management to even realize a change is necessary. After all, different regimes but in recent Pens history defensemen like Paul Martin and Sergei Gonchar struggled mightily in their first seasons in Pittsburgh before improving their play.

Expecting Johnson to do the same though is obviously a very empty hope, given age and history.

If the Pens want to get out from Johnson’s poor play and burdensome contract, could they? Rutherford set the blueprint in 2015 when he traded Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley. Chicago’s motivation was a bit financial (Pittsburgh retained some salary to make it advantageous) and Daley was not being used much by them, so they hoped Scuderi and his championship pedigree might fit in better.

Johnson doesn’t have any sort of championship pedigree, but he does block shots and add #grit. If he were a free agent this summer would he be offered a four year contract somewhere? Doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities given the way the majority of NHL general managers think and operate, so while no one will confuse the contract for being good, it’s certainly not unmoveable.

Dion Phaneuf was traded (twice) with MUCH more term and money remaining. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ll make the big leap to assume Rutherford’s bluster about “best defense we’ve ever had” is just putting on a brave face in public as he looks to upgrade a team that needs it.

If so, what options could be on the table? We’ll assume the Pens aren’t creative or inventive enough to sweeten the deal (because then the options are basically limitless and impossible to preview) and assume logic along the lines of Scuderi-for-Daley where teams can exchange similar types of players. Let’s check in with every market to looks from reasonable perspectives.

Buyout

This is the easiest, because it takes no co-operation from another team to make it happen. After the Stanley Cup Finals, a brief buyout window opens. If the Pens wanted to, they can make Johnson disappear from the roster, but not without penalty to their salary cap. Below, from capfriendly:

Feasible? No. As you can see, buying Johnson out this year adds eight seasons of salary cap dead space. That’s not worth it. Also, the Pens are one of only a handful of teams that have NEVER utilized a buyout since they started in the salary cap era (2005), and avoiding the poison of dead space will be necessary moving forward. A buyout isn’t the answer this summer.

Anaheim Ducks

Per capfriendly, the Ducks only have four defensemen under contract for next season right now (with two prospects splitting time in NHL/AHL). So the need could be there. Rutherford and Ducks GM Bob Murray work well together. The Ducks are in a bit of a cap pinch too.

Idea: Johnson for Ryan Kesler (three years left $6.875 million). Kesler isn’t expected to play in the NHL again with a deteriorating hip condition. The Pens’ could put him on LTIR and deal with that expense.

Feasible: Maybe. Murray and Rutherford are both fairly erratic managers that vibe together.

Arizona Coyotes

Feasible: No. Arizona has five defensemen with $3+ million cap hits already next year, and a young savvy GM in John Chayka who wouldn’t touch JJ with a ten-foot pole.

Boston Bruins

Feasible: On the surface, not really. Boston has six defensemen on the roster under contract next season, as well as two great restricted free agents in Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy to bring back.

But Boston’s 2018 free agent signing of John Moore was fairly Johnson-eque, they have identical term left and similar contracts ($2.75m for Moore). Moore had injury issues this season but has now been relegated to healthy scratch territory in Boston’s playoff run. If the Pens do some salary retention would the Bruins be interested? Doesn’t hurt to ask, but the answer probably still is no.

Buffalo Sabres

Feasible: one would think, no. Pittsburgh probably wouldn’t want to take on oft-injured Kyle Okposo (four years remaining at a $6.0m cap hit) and Buffalo probably wouldn’t want Johnson anyways, since it’s tough to get better by adding bad defenseman and GM Jason Botterill probably understands the stats.

Calgary Flames

Feasible: not really. James Neal ($5.75m cap hit, four years remaining) had a bad first season in Calgary but the Flames already have five defensemen making $3.5+ next year, and none of them really merit a trade.

Carolina Hurricanes

Feasible: no way. Carolina has a stable of much younger and superior defensemen and no real bad contract to need to flip.

Colorado Avalanche

Feasible: nope. Similar to Carolina, a lot of young talent here, and no real term on the books on the team that matches what Pittsburgh has, no trade fit here.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Feasible: Ha, no. They got rid of him for a reason and there was bad blood at the end.

Welcome, to intermission

Dallas Stars

Feasible: unlikely. Dallas’ two worst contracts (Jason Spezza and Marc Methot) are up this summer. Unless they wanted Jack Johnson for wanting him, there’s no logic for swapping bad contracts.

Detroit Red Wings

Feasible: probably not. New GM Steve Yzerman did employ a bad defenseman in Dan Girardi with Tampa, but it was at a discount once he got bought out by New York. Most the players DET would probably like to trade for salary exceeding contribution like Frans Nielsen, Darren Helm or Danny Dekeyser also have no trade clauses.

Edmonton Oilers

Feasible: sadly no. Edmonton already has five defenseman at $3.2+ million next year, none of them make sense to flip here. The contract they would like to deal at Milan Lucic ($6.0m remaining for four years) is too bad for Pittsburgh to take - and he has a no movement clause. Even Johnson’s contract isn’t worth taking that on.

Florida Panthers

Feasible: nope. Florida has high-priced defense and supposedly wants to clear salary to try to add good free agents like Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, taking on Johnson would be counter-productive.

Intermission II

Los Angeles Kings

Feasible: ehh. They already had JJ, traded him and won two of the next three Stanley Cups so probably have enough staffers still around to not to make that mistake again. However Dustin Brown (three years left at $5.875m) makes for some salary savings if interested, though it shouldn’t be counted on.

Minnesota Wild

Feasible: unlikely. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise have full no movement clauses, and would they really cut bait on Victor Rask (three years at $4.0m) so soon? Doesn’t seem smart.

Montreal Canadiens

Feasible: oh yeah, baby. Montreal only has five defensemen under contract next season, only two of them making more than $1m. Karl Alzner (three years at $4.6m) has been a bust and shouldn’t interest Pittsburgh. Ideally the Habs would want Johnson to replace impending free agent Jordie Benn as a 3LD defensive defenseman. Seems like a move up their alley. Dale Weise (one year remaining at $2.3m) might make sense to balance salaries.

Nashville Predators

Feasible: duh, trade him for P.K. Subban. (OK, yeah probably not).

New Jersey Devils

Feasible: not really. Division team and no real bad contracts

New York Islanders

Feasible: nope. Division team, decent enough young defense as it is.

New York Rangers

Feasible: Vince McMahon sized no chance in hell. Pens and Rangers don’t trade together.

Ottawa Senators

Feasible: no way. Taking on almost $12m in remaining salary commitments is a no-go for the frugal Sens, who dump future liabilities, not bring them on. Would they sign Johnson this summer to a four year deal? No. They wouldn’t trade for him either.

Philadelphia Flyers

Feasible: an even bigger Vince McMahon sized no chance in hell. Pens and Flyers don’t trade together.

Intermission III

San Jose Sharks

Feasible: no way, Jose. SJ has cap issues and will be focused on re-signing Erik Karlsson, not adding Jack Johnson.

St. Louis Blues

Feasible: well, more than some. STL only has five defensemen under contract next year, but no glaringly obvious bad contracts to trade away. Maybe David Perron ($4.0m for three more years) due to injury concerns? Trading him then getting him back seems to be common place.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Feasible: snowball’s chance in Florida. Tampa has their own cap crunch. Probably the only guy they would like to dump in Ryan Callahan only has one year left on his contract ($5.8m cap hit) so adding four years of Johnson doesn’t make sense.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Feasible: well... Toronto would probably like to move on from Nikita Zaitsev (five more years remaining at $4.5m) and that’s a lot of term for him. It’s obviously unknown if they’d flip a right handed defenseman for a lefty like Johnson with coach Mike Babcock being very picky about handedness. GM Kyle Dubas doesn’t seem like a JJ type of manager either, but it would save him one year and perhaps more importantly $1.25m on a hypothetical Zaitsev trade. Is that enough for motivation?

Intermission IV

Vancouver Canucks

Feasible: kinda. The Canucks will have lots of turnover and only have two defensemen making over a million bucks as of now. They surely want Alex Edler back, but if he leaves via free agency they could have that “defensive defenseman” hole on the roster. They have no shortage of guys in the $3ish million range who aren’t that great to consider trading (Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Ryan Spooner, Sven Baertschi), so a trade for even salaries looks possible too.

Vegas Golden Knights

Feasible: bust. Six defensemen signed for next year, all of them better than Johnson.

Washington Capitals

Feasible: vetoed. Caps and Pens aren’t working together and Washington has a salary cap crunch of their own.

Winnipeg Jets

Feasible: unlikely. Jets have a busy summer and adding Johnson doesn’t really make a ton of sense. But they are pretty weak at LHD behind Josh Morrissey with not much at all there..

—-

Well, there you have it. Anaheim, Montreal and Vancouver seem like the best bets based on need, contracts and management style. But there could be an outside chance that a grasper calls to Boston and Toronto should be placed just to see if there’s motivation to flip bad contracts.

Beyond just trade market though, the biggest hurdle will be the Pens wanting to get away from Jack Johnson. Once that happens, they can probably trade him without moving heaven and earth, though a bad contract is likely to be coming back.