Defensemen can be a tough group to gauge, especially for the guys with pronounced strengths and serious weaknesses.
Straightforward shutdown guys tend to please fans because of their efficiency, but their lack of creativity often makes them useless on the power play. On the other side of the coin, many offensive defensemen are double-edged swords in that their pinching tendencies and willingness to lead the rush can backfire on their own teams if a mistake is made. Savvy general managers might track down some solid two-way guys or the occasional elite player, but in order to win a Stanley Cup, teams also often need to make the most of flawed players.
Jack Johnson is one of those “live by the sword, die by the sword” types. On one hand, his offensive numbers continue to climb. Johnson went from scoring 11 points in each of the 2007-08 and 08-09 seasons to 36 in 09-10 and a career-high 42 last season. That being said, he’s never had a positive plus/minus (-78 in his career, including a career-worst -21 in 10-11).
To extend the dichotomy, the American blueliner even receives mixed messages from his team; GM Dean Lombardi griped about his unstructured background at the University of Michigan but also signed Johnson to a risky seven-year, $30.5 million deal. Johnson is supposed to be the Kings’ second star defenseman behind contract holdout Drew Doughty, so Rich Hammond wonders if Johnson can finally be on the “plus” side of the ledger next season. Hammond caught up with Kings head coach Terry Murray to get his take.
MURRAY: “He took some big strides early. In the first half, he was one of the top-scoring defensemen in the league. I thought his play without the puck was really good. He tailed off in the second part. That plus-minus number is something that I look at, and it started to build up again. To me, when I look at his game, I think he got away from being a real hard player to play against, in the sense of being physical. That’s one of the areas that I wanted to talk to him at the end of the season (about), and he was out of town right away for the World Championships. So I haven’t had that meeting yet, but that will be the message. `It’s time to get back to being that hard guy, making sure you’re pinning and sealing.’ And I think that ends the play. Too often, in the second half, there was a little bit of stick-checking and backing off, giving a little bit too much space. Because he’s out there against the top guys, and that’s all those guys need, is one foot to make a play and things were happening around him.”
Of course, many in the hockey community – myself included – think that the plus/minus stat is limited because team and linemate success plays such a large role in the figure. The thing is, Johnson doesn’t pass the sniff test with nerdy stats either. The Battle of California gang revealed that just about every Kings defensemen fared worse with Johnson than without him last season.
So whatever way you slice it, Johnson’s defensive numbers are troubling. That being said, his offensive skills keep rising – he scored 28 points on the power play last season, which obviously isn’t reflected in his plus/minus.
The hope, then, is that he can keep his offensive punch while improving on the defensive end. On the bright side, Johnson usually plays alongside defensive stalwart Rob Scuderi, the Kings have a strong defensive system in general and he’s only 24 years old. Then again, perhaps his old habits won’t die – especially since Johnson won’t have financial incentive to improve until 2016 or even 2017.
I hate to say it, but that the Jack Johnson the Kings see today will probably be the one they see for the duration of that contract. Perhaps his offensive abilities make him worth the trouble anyway, though.