The Pittsburgh Penguins have been known for three things over the past few seasons: speed, scoring, and winning.
Despite their success, one would not commonly use the word “defense” when discussing the strengths of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Over these years of success, players such as Olli Määttä and Kris Letang have often seen themselves caught in the cross-fire of some fans’ blame.
Lately, however, it’s been the newcomer Jack Johnson who has taken the most heat from the Pittsburgh faithful. When you look at the statistics, it’s easy to see why.
Why the Blame?
When Johnson was acquired by Pittsburgh at the beginning of free agency in the summer, many were skeptical of the signing. The skepticism wasn’t solely rooted in the fact that he was signed to a 5-year deal worth $3.25 million annually, which seemed a bit excessive. The uncertainty also stemmed from the simple truth that his statistics just weren’t all that spectacular.
Statistics gathered from hockey-reference.com show that his plus-minus ratings haven’t been strong over the years. With a team-worst -11 rating on the season, Johnson currently sits at -120 in 818 NHL games. Though it’s true that the plus-minus statistic is far from reliable over a short sample period, the consistency of Johnson’s substandard rating is enough to question his reliability.
Though the statistics provide one reason why Johnson is so quick to be blamed, it’s the things that don’t show up on the stat-sheet that have really frustrated some fans.
For one, his positioning is often less than ideal. Often times you’ll see Johnson take himself out of a play simply by putting himself in a position where he can no longer affect anybody or anything around him.
One thing that leads to this is his apparent indecision, specifically on who he wants to cover. Sometimes, it appears as though he’s afraid to commit to a defensive play so as not to make a mistake, but that indecision becomes a mistake in itself.
All these things together make a strong case as to why the Jack Johnson signing has caused some debate.
Why He Could Be Worth It
Pittsburgh General Manager, Jim Rutherford, wouldn’t have been ignorant to the subpar defensive numbers. Nor would he have been clueless as to what Johnson’s faults are. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Johnson in the hopes he could add strength and a veteran quality to the defensive core.
To be fair, that’s exactly what he’s done, even if it does come at the expense of some poor defensive IQ. Johnson’s appeared in every game for Pittsburgh this season and, based on his ice-time, there’s no indication he’ll be drawing out of the lineup any time soon.
Even though he makes very noticeable mistakes, Johnson’s absence from the lineup would be far from positive. Though his skills with the puck on his stick aren’t anything special, Johnson is one of the best Penguins’ defensemen at knowing when and where to carry the puck.
The reason carrying the puck up the ice, rather than only passing, is important is because it feeds the Penguins’ transition game, backs up opposing defenders, and allows the forwards more room to work.
He also has the unique potential to be an energy player on the ice. Much like Patric Hörnqvist, Johnson has the ability to spark the bench. He can do this with a hard-fought puck battle, a hard hit, or a great defensive play 1-on-1. These are the aspects of the game in which he can do really well, however, he seems inconsistent in these abilities.
No matter where you stand on Johnson’s presence on the blue-line, he’s not going anywhere just yet.