The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a few problems this season. But it doesn’t seem that their biggest one has been taken care of.
It doesn’t take someone who has watched hockey at all levels for several decades to know it. It doesn’t take a skilled mathematician to read it in the advanced statistics. It shouldn’t take a head coach and general manager who have spent decades around the game, both as players and then in management, to see the writing on the wall. To put it simply, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson is bad and is costing the Penguins opportunities to win games.
When the Penguins signed Jack Johnson to a five-year contract this offseason, Penguins fans were in disbelief. Not only was the contract a long-term deal that could be an issue years down the road, but all signs pointed to Jack Johnson no longer being an NHL-quality defenseman this year, let alone at the end of the contract.
When Penguins GM Jim Rutherford announced the signing, he stated
“I don’t think he had a bad year,” Rutherford said. “He was a healthy scratch at the end of the season. I know the reason why. It wasn’t because of how he was playing.”
Note that in the 2017-18 season, Johnson only tallied 11 points in 77 games, while performing on the low-end of almost every advanced statistic.
Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan backed up Rutherford’s strange signing by calling Johnson a “solid defenseman” that will help with the transition game despite the blunt feedback from his longtime acquaintance and Johnson’s former Head Coach, John Tortorella.
“The thing that pisses me off the most is a general manager in this league questioning and talking about our decision-making,” Tortorella added. “Shut the [expletive] up! Jack and I had an open, honest conversation all through this. Jack and I have known one another forever, and I love the guy. There’s no agenda here. You think [scratching Johnson was] an easy decision for me, after what Jack Johnson has been in this league and what he is?
“But that can’t get in my way as far as making the right decisions for this hockey club, and that’s all we do, so Rutherford should shut the [expletive] up. … I don’t want to go to name-calling, ‘cause I know Jimmy. He’s a good man. They’re both good people. But what the [expletive] are they doing? Get on with your business! I hope [Johnson] plays his [expletive] off for ’em, but stay the [expletive] out of our business when you don’t know what’s going on.”
Penguins Musical Defensive Pairings
Around and around they go, who they’ll be paired with next no one knows! Since the beginning of the season, the Penguins have been looking for ways to stabilize what has been a less than stellar defensive corps. With Justin Schultz out injured, the Penguins also went and traded one of their best young prospects to get some help on the back end with their transition game by acquiring Marcus Pettersson.
Throughout the first half of the season, most defenseman on the team, except for the top pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, saw games from the press box as healthy scratches, with one exception; Jack Johnson. What’s unique about that situation is that based on both advanced analytics and the old-fashion eye-tests, Johnson should have likely been the first one to have been a healthy scratch ( I won’t go into the full advanced analytics discussion, but a comprehensive look at Jack Johnson’s underwhelming season can be found at the Pensblog here).
Over halfway through the season, Jack Johnson has yet to sit a game out. Instead the Penguins have been experimenting with every conceivable defensive partner for Jack Johnson, going as far as breaking up the Letang-Dumoulin pairing so that Johnson could be tried with both of them at different points. Throughout this entire season, there has only been one constant on the backend for the Penguins: Jack Johnson brings down every single defensive pairing he’s been on.
Sullivan and Rutherford Have Let Pride and Ego Stand in Way of Winning
When the Penguins signed Jack Johnson this offseason, they were placing a bet that they could turn his game around with the right help, mainly from veteran defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, now a defensive coach with the Penguins and plenty of experience turning around misfit defenseman from around the league.
When Rutherford made comments critical of Johnson’s time in Columbus and the management there, they doubled-down on that bet, staking their reputations on the ability of Jack Johnson to turn his career around.
Instead, the Penguins are stuck between Sullivan and Rutherford having to admit that their rival (and Sullivan’s longtime friend/mentor) was indeed correct and that they were wrong. Until the Penguin’s Front Office is willing to admit this mistake and cut their losses, Jack Johnson will continue to cost the Penguins points and potentially even a chance at this year’s playoffs.