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End of an error: Penguins cut ties with expensive mistake that will linger for ages

The Jack Johnson contract was awful since before it was signed. The team still did it, and now take a six year dead cap hit because of it

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, 2018 the Penguins signed defenseman Jack Johnson. As you could tell from the title of the Pensburgh article (“Regrettably, Penguins sign Jack Johnson for 5 years” detailing the transaction, it was bound to damage the team from day one.

Indeed, it lived up to its billing. In the two seasons Johnson played with the Pens, while he was on ice at 5v5, the Pens allowed 109 goals against. If a goal was scored while Jack Johnson was on the ice at 5v5, 55.6% of the time the opponent scored that goal.

Remove just that one player and any time a goal was scored at 5v5 in the last two years there was a 55.9% chance the Penguins scored it. He was the one variable that turned the team from “incredibly good” while he wasn’t on the ice into “disastrously bad” when he was out there.

Alas, one of the most annoying aspects of the acquisition was how obviously terrible it would be. On the day he signed Johnson, GM Jim Rutherford defensively talked about how the defenseman could play capably in the top-four, on the left or right side, and even help reduce the minutes of Kris Letang. Rutherford dismissed any worry that Johnson was a healthy scratch for Columbus in his last season, defiantly saying that it wasn’t due to his caliber of play.

Every single claim Rutherford made about Johnson was proven wrong on the ice. He was a player who couldn’t handle the puck, added nothing offensively, was unreliable and beat positionally and off the rush defensively, and often floated through space aimlessly.

As the signing article accurately stated:

Johnson, 31, by most advanced metrics is among the worst defensemen in the league. The Pens have now tied themselves to him deep into his 30’s where his play is sure to decline further still.

Pittsburgh wanted to add a defenseman, which of course isn’t a bad idea at all. But the execution of this plan is baffling. It’s tough to even imagine what a decent argument would be to sign Johnson. Adding five years of term on top of that is above and beyond foolish. Jack Johnson is likely to provide replacement level play, at best, and at a premium price for years to come. At worst he may be in a role playing 20+ minutes a night and actively hurting the team. It’s tough to see anything about this signing as a positive, even on day 1.

This isn’t something where hindsight and time will be needed to know this was a mistake but the Penguins somehow made it anyways. Having Johnson won’t disqualify the Pens from competing- and even though twitter will have a meltdown- the sun will still rise in the east tomorrow morning and we’ll all go on with our lives. But it’s still tough to watch your team make a completely avoidable and self-inflicted mistake and that’s what has happened here. Buckle up, baby.

Almost all of this came to pass, including the stretch last season with Brian Dumoulin hurt where Johnson was pressed into first pair duties to no success.

The lesson learned here is the same lesson Ray Shero took from signing Rob Scuderi in 2013. On the day Shero signed Scuderi the former GM said, “If I only want to offer a guy a two-year contract, he’s going to go to the next team for a four-year contract.”

In the end, Shero would have been better off not signing a fading defensive defenseman to his age 34-38 seasons. Rutherford, no doubt, hoped Johnson would have performed better in his age 31-36 seasons, but the full body of work for any honest analysis would have shown the player was past-prime and not worth it.

Still, when an NHL GM wants a player, the NHL GM is going to get the player. Like Shero, Rutherford likely didn’t concern himself with the tail-end of this contract. The goal was to add a capable player to help the team in it’s championship window for a few years. The issue was he picked a bad player to invest in.

Signing free agents often proves regrettable in the NHL, as we have seen time and again older players cash in on big and long contracts and then become almost instant drags (Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Andrew Ladd, David Clarkson, and on and on).

It looks doubly tricky for general managers to accurately assess the abilities and the value of defensive defensemen, especially aging players.

While most of the reaction today has been positive an unbridled joy from Pens’ fans — and hey, what’s not to like about removing what has been the team’s weakest link — there’s still regret to be had. The decision to sign Johnson cost the team two years of terrible play on the ice. This includes the 2020 playoff series where Johnson was on ice for five 5v5 goals against in just 51 minutes of play and his pair was a large reason the team lost.

It will now leave a scar as being the first contract in the 15 year history of the NHL salary cap for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And it will be a lasting six year reminder of this mistake that will cost the team $7 million total of cap space (between $916k - $1.9 million, depending on the season). That’s a self-imposed handicap which will linger until the end of 2025-26.

At this point, it was the right move and certainly preferable to another year of Jack Johnson getting constantly dunked on by opponents and having to fish more pucks out of his net. But when the joy subsides, the lasting cost of the needless and obviously incorrect decision to bring him to Pittsburgh in the first place will continue to be a lasting negative mark on the team for years to come.