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Possibilities for a Jack Johnson exit strategy for the Pittsburgh Penguins

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Looking into how the Pens might pull off dropping their worst player

Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As the NHL rounds the corner and looks to begin the draft on Tuesday (seriously, who holds a draft on a Tuesday??), the Pens are left in a state of off-season limbo. They have more work to do, and the draft is often a big opportunity and point where teams figure out NHL trades.

With that in mind, Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford’s latest chat with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe has some insight as to how the Pens will handle their over-crowded defense corps.

“Dumoulin and Petterson are still young and aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “And obviously we like Matheson a great deal. He’ll play on the left side. So, that’s our left side. Those three. That’s it.”

Kris Letang and John Marino will be on the right side. Chad Ruhwedel, too, though the Penguins historically prefer him in a No. 7 defenseman role. Johnson could attempt to play on the right side but struggled mightily in that spot two years ago. So, what becomes of Johnson and his $3.25 million annual cap hit?

“I just don’t know right now,” Rutherford said. “We are still working through what we’re going to do with Jack. Matheson being here changes things for Jack. So, maybe Jack can play on the right side. Or maybe he’s just going to be a depth guy for us. But Matheson is a younger guy who we really think needs to play.”

These quotes and train of thoughts from Rutherford is very consistent with what he told Mark Madden on the radio last week.

The way Rutherford is talking, if you parse his language and are used to some of his tells, is also very telling.

“We are still working through what we’re going to do with Jack,” is a very interesting statement. As of now, the possibility of Johnson playing the right side exists, because he’s on the roster and there’s no spot for him on the left side. However the team knows that Johnson has not played well on the right side, and that a Matheson-Johnson third pairing would not set their new young acquisition up for success. And they are very interested in developing and seeing if Matheson can flourish. That won’t be with Jack Johnson.

That is what the Pens have to work through and possibilities to weigh, and probably are. The way Rutherford is talking about Jack Johnson now sounds a LOT like the way Rutherford was talking about Nick Bjugstad earlier in the year, before the Penguins were able to trade away Bjugstad.

Rutherford pays lip service to the player and has to see him on the roster, since he is, but deep down knows it just can’t be. “Matheson being here changes things for Jack,” is a huge statement and indicator of what the team’s position is moving forward.

The big question is, as always, how? How can the Pens get out from Jack Johnson?

The simple answer is as of right now there are two options. A trade or a buyout.

Surely a trade will be preferable. Could Johnson be packaged with Matt Murray and sent away like that? Could a team with cap space (Detroit or New Jersey, for instance) be interested in eating the contract in exchange for an asset — as the Red Wings have recently done and expressed interest in doing again?

If a trade can’t be found, the team will have to move forward with a buyout. The buyout window runs from today through October 8 at 5 p.m. Eastern Time. The NHL draft is Ocotber 6th and 7th, with most meaningful trade activity taking place early.

If Murray+Johnson can’t happen (and then it’s just Murray alone getting dealt somewhere) that would seem to indicate a good time to switch gears and move from trading Jack Johnson to buying him out.

On one hand, it seems counter-productive for a team who is trying to save money to use a buyout and pay a player not to play. On the other hand, if the Pens’ choices are:

  • A) pay Jack Johnson $3.0 million in real cash this season ($3.25 million cap hit) to play, and play very poorly on the right side

OR

  • B) pay Jack Johnson $916,667 in real cash this season ($600,000 cap hit for 2020-21) to go away

...then the aspects of the decision shift pretty dramatically. This type of move saves the real money and cap space to sign a replacement right-handed defenseman (my kingdom for Dylan DeMelo!) to compete with Chad Ruhwedel for a spot in the lineup. All the while pulling addition from the subtraction of losing the team’s worst player over the last two years in Jack Johnson.

It’s the same sort of logic that is having the Penguins pay $2.625 million in real cash and eat a $2.05 million cap hit this season for Bjugstad to not play for them this year. The team chose that over the alternative of paying full rate for Bjugstad.

The Bjugstad move proves the team has the ability to eat salary and a cap hit as a penalty to absorb to shed a player/contract that they don’t want. If Pittsburgh can’t find a trade, they will have to do the same for Johnson, though on a different scale.

Here’s the buyout schedule from CapFriendly.

It is true that a buyout leaves six years of dead cap space. The team would obviously want to avoid at all costs — thus why the trade option is doubtlessly the first preference. But, if a trade isn’t there....

Pittsburgh has been managed and setup to not prioritize what happens in four or fie years. Having a lasting small scar of a buyout is just part of the price they’ll have to pay for signing Jack Johnson in the first place.

Keep an eye on the draft next week as a key indicator of how the Pens will be able to reshape their goaltending and defensive groups.