Now that it is over, the Jack Johnson saga has to be one of the more completely bizarre developments that has played out for the Pittsburgh Penguins during this ongoing 15-year run of excellence.
I will admit it, I definitely feel bad for Jack here and how it all played out, even as one of the fiercest critics of the signing.
I feel bad not necessarily because he was better than we thought or because he was under-appreciated, but because he didn’t ask for any of this.
In the end, he didn’t do anything wrong except be thrown into the wrong role, on the wrong team, with the wrong contract.
It started with most of the fanbase loathing him for that contract, continued with an even larger part of the fanbase crushing his every mistake, and ended with the fanbase basically throwing a party on the day his contract was bought out.
The thing of it is, the Penguins’ Jack Johnson problem was always a talent evaluation and coaching problem more than it was a Jack Johnson problem.
He didn’t offer himself the five-year contract worth $3.25 million per season (you would have taken that as well), and he didn’t put himself in the lineup every night.
I have zero doubt he played hard, practiced hard, and did everything he could to try and help the team. Everybody likes him, he’s a good teammate, and seems like a solid person.
The harsh reality is he just has significant limitations as an NHL player and was consistently put into a position where his chances of success were low.
All of the venom and vitriol should have been — and still should be — directed at the people that made those decisions. Not him.
What made it worse is that at every turn Jim Rutherford put outrageously unreachable expectations on him that just further set him up for failure and made the fanbase dislike him ever more.
When the Penguins initially signed Johnson prior to the 2018-19 season everybody knew what to expect. He was coming off of a tough year in Columbus that ended with him being a healthy scratch, and every objective measure had shown that throughout his career he was not a particularly effective defender no matter the the team or defensive partner. Despite all of that the Penguins were signing him to a five-year contract worth millions.
It wasn’t even the fact that they signed Johnson that was the problem. It was the term, which just seemed to be way too outrageous for a player that was — at best — expected to be a third-pairing player.
At the introductory press conference, Rutherford was defiant that he was getting the right player, going as far as to say that he knew why Johnson had been scratched in Columbus, and that it had nothing to do with his play.
That comment enraged Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella and added even more hilarious fuel to his personal rivalry with the Penguins.
That organizational defiance continued for the better of two seasons anytime Johnson was the subject of discussion. Rutherford has never been shy about calling out his team. At times over the past two seasons he has savagely ripped the effort and performance of the group as a whole, called out individual players, and basically left a scorched earth trail of criticism when it was warranted.
But Johnson always seemed to escape that no matter what his performance was. It was always something along the lines of how, “Jack never got a fair shot here from the first day he got here,” or how they were happy with how he was playing, or that he wasn’t as bad as everyone thought he was, or how it was actually Justin Schultz that was the problem with the third-pairing this season and not him (though, to be fair, Schultz was a problem as well).
As recently as one month ago, just weeks before the Penguins ultimately bought out the remainder of his deal, Rutherford said this to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe.
“Here’s my summary of this situation,” a terse Rutherford said. “Maybe Jack Johnson isn’t as good as I think he is. Maybe. But he’s not as bad as all of the anti-Jack Johnson people think he is. I’ll tell you what he is: He’s a solid, third-pairing defenseman if he’s playing with the right guy. He’s a player that I happen to really like and I think he’s a better player than a lot of people want to give him credit for.”
This all happened despite the Penguins acquiring a new left defenseman to play on the third pairing (Mike Matheson) to ultimately push Johnson off of the team, and after the Penguins had a deal in place to trade him (to Minnesota in the Phil Kessel trade that ultimately fell through) after just one year with the team.
It is like they knew he was not working out, but they could not simply bring themselves to admit it.
There is actually a key line in that above quote that really explains the entire phenomenon: “He’s a player that I happen to really like.”
It really all came down to ego, and a stubborn refusal to admit defeat. That is another bizarre aspect to this entire thing because Rutherford’s calling card the past three years is how willing he is to admit his mistakes, no matter how detrimental they might be to the long-term outlook of the team.
Johnson is an example of the blind spot hockey coaches and GM’s can develop for a player for any number of reasons.
Every coach and GM has that one player they just can’t quit, no matter what (I call this The Bylsma-Adams factor).
It was 15 years ago that the hockey scouting community was CONVINCED that Jack Johnson was going to be a superstar in the NHL. He was considered one of the top-three prospects in the Sidney Crosby draft class, and it was Rutherford in Carolina that ended up being the general manager to pick him. In the end, nobody wanted to admit that they might have been wrong all those years ago and it led to, well, what played out here over the past two years.