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The Penguins’ top six defensemen shouldn’t include Jack Johnson

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An embarrassing own goal only drives home the obvious: Jack Johnson isn’t capable of helping the Penguins win hockey games

NHL: SEP 22 Preseason - Penguins at Red Wings Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NHL preseason is a chance to iron out the kinks and get ready to be in top form for the start of the regular season. Jack Johnson is already in his mid-season form, being on ice for two goals against the Detroit Red Wings yesterday, including this embarrassing own goal.

Plainly enough, stuff happens when you play defense and own goals are a part of it sometimes. It’s unfortunate but a way of life. That it happened to Johnson though just goes to under-score the bigger problems in his game that haven’t been addressed or upgraded, because as it should be clear he can’t improve.

The chatter this summer from media and team alike trying to gaslight Penguins’ fans — and distract from a 2018-19 that saw the team’s big free agent defenseman be their worst at suppressing shots, chances and goals — was that Johnson would be more comfortable in year two. He had trained hard and worked on his skating. He would be used on the left side of the ice and wouldn’t have as many problems.

All of this, of course, are unbelievable or just patently wrong claims. A 32-year old defenseman with 800+ NHL games doesn’t improve his skating in a summer, if anything the passage of time is only going to erode skills of a normal player by this point. Playing on his forehand side should be better than playing off-handed, but it’s not as if Johnson is capable of making tape-to-tape passes reliably on either side. “The system” isn’t and wasn’t Jack Johnson’s problem, and as Erik Gudbranson and Marcus Pettersson proved last season it’s far from impossible to come in and play well in Pittsburgh. Jack Johnson being bad at hockey is the problem.

Despite the efforts of narrative, Johnson still struggled mightily in the last 20ish games of the season, where he still had the highest goals against rate of any defenseman on the team, and was especially a drag on Justin Schultz, as illustrated probably the best by The Pensblog’s breakdown over the summer.

It took until Game 83 of the season last year for coach Mike Sullivan to make Johnson a healthy scratch, in time for Game 1 of the playoffs. He played Johnson all 82 regular season games to allow him to acclimate to the team, and it was a failure. Johnson was on the ice for 60 5-on-5 goals against, at a rate of 2.72 per/60. Both marks were worst on the team.

Unfortunately the Pens lost that Game 1, and knowing that Brian Dumoulin had a torn PCL and that Olli Maatta was very shaky, Sullivan went back to his veteran. It didn’t work out either, but options were limited.

Unfortunately, options remain limited. The Penguins would have to use another replacement caliber player as their third pair left defense in Juuso Riikola. Riikola at least would offer a little more mobility and hopefully make less costly mistakes at this point than Johnson. He also was able to score a goal this weekend, so for whatever it’s worth hopefully the coaching staff has a bit more evidence to consider.

It’s embarrassing for the player and the team to make a healthy scratch of a respected veteran with four years left on his contract. However, Mike Sullivan really has to consider what is best for his team. How does he get the most out of the lineup?

At this point the answer should be crystal clear that WAY more bad things than good things are going to happen to the Penguins with Jack Johnson on the ice. Play him and he will no doubt pile up goals against and hurt the team’s chances to win.

Sullivan probably didn’t need Johnson to literally score on his own net to remind him of that, but in a twisted way mistakes like that might drive home the point. The instincts to scratch Johnson for the most important game of the season were still the right ones. Riikola might not be a world beater, but he deserves the chance to prove that he won’t actively hurt the team’s chances of winning. Sullivan ought to have seen enough of that from Johnson at this point to know that won’t change.