On Wednesday the Pittsburgh Penguins cleared a significant amount of salary cap space over the next two years by sending forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a draft pick.
That trade, combined with the bump to the league-wide cap ceiling for 2018, has given the Penguins more than $10 million in salary cap space to work with this summer. Only needing to re-sign Jamie Oleksiak and Riley Sheahan, that newfound cap space gives them plenty of options in free agency or the trade market and could make them contenders for a number of impact players. It also helped them correct what was a pretty significant mistake in last summer’s free agent signing period when gave Hunwick a three-year contract that paid him more than $2 million per season. It became apparent very early in the season that Hunwick and the Penguins were not a great match as the veteran struggled throughout much of the season and eventually found himself as a healthy scratch.
That signing not working out — and the ensuing trade — is just one of the reasons Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is looking to upgrade the team’s blue line this summer.
One player the team seems to be targeting in free agency: Former Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson.
Over the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of smoke surrounding the Penguins and Johnson with both Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reporting that the two sides could be a possible match. On Wednesday there seemed to be a little more fuel thrown on that fire when reports began to surface out of Pittsburgh that Johnson could be joining the Penguins on Sunday when the free agent signing period officially begins.
According to Mackey, the Penguins intend to sign Johnson to a five-year (five-year!) contract on Sunday for a dollar amount that could be in the $3-3.5 million range. Mark Madden of 105.9 the X, the Penguins’ flagship radio station, first reported the five-year term.
Assuming all of this plays out this would be a pretty bizarre series of events for the Penguins.
For one, even though the reported contract numbers would represent a sharp reduction in salary from Johnson’s previous contract, that is still a significant amount of money for a team that is perpetually pressed against the league’s salary cap ceiling. Especially for a player that is 31 years old (and will turn 32 during the season), coming off of a career-worst year offensively, and whose season ended with him being a healthy scratch on a fringe playoff team that was bounced in the first round.
None of that should sound encouraging.
Johnson entered the NHL more than a decade ago with much fanfare. He was the third player selected in the Sidney Crosby draft (behind Crosby and Bobby Ryan) and that pre-draft hype has followed him around for most of his career, at least in the sense that hockey people seem to love him no matter how much evidence there is to suggest that he isn’t as good as they thought he was going to be.
Objectively speaking the numbers are ugly.
Since entering the NHL in 2006-07 Johnson’s minus-109 mark is the worst among all NHL players.
Flawed as plus/minus is, when you are talking about more than a decades worth of data, and also taking into account that Johnson has played on some pretty good teams during his career, there should be cause for concern that he has finished as a plus-player just once in his career. He has been minus-5 or worse in every other season. Six times he has finished as a minus-12 or worse.
From a shots perspective things are just as bad.
Since the start of the 2006-07 season (Johnson’s debut year) there have been more than 356 defensemen that have played at least 100 games in the NHL. Johnson’s 48 percent Corsi rating is 275th out of that group.
Just looking at the past five years his 47.9 mark is 204th out of 259 defenders.
In other words: When Jack Johnson is on the ice his team is getting badly outshot and badly outscored. That is a terrible combination.
So why in the world are the Penguins interested in this?
They obviously need some additional help on the blue line and definitely need some additional depth. But is this the best way to get it? Is this the best allocation of resources?
In recent years the Penguins have had some success taking on reclamation projects on defense and getting more out of them than other teams have been able to with the additions of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, and most recently Jamie Oleksiak.
But none of those players required the type of immediate commitment they would be giving Johnson. All of them were originally acquired for minimal assets (Daley was acquired for Rob Scuderi, while Schultz and Oleksiak were acquired for mid-round draft picks). The other factor: Schultz and Oleksiak were both in their age 25 seasons when they were acquired and had at least shown flashes that they had more to offer in the right setting. Johnson, again, will turn 32 years old this season. What we have seen from him at this point in his career is a pretty good indication that this is what he is as a player. And if you’re looking for a potential player to “fix,” that is a huge commitment for a question mark.
There is nothing wrong with a team wanting to sign Jack Johnson in free agency. Yes, his entire career he has been woefully miscast as a top-pairing defenseman and has consistently shown he is probably not suited for that role.
But in the right setting, on the right contract, in the right role, there might be some value for a team to find. Based on every piece of evidence we have to look at throughout Johnson’s career, the right contract and the right role is not a five-year commitment for an apparent top-four role on a cap-strapped team.
Rutherford is a three-time Stanley Cup champion and has made some fantastic trades/transactions during his time in Pittsburgh. But he is not invincible. He is not immune to mistakes, as evidence by the fact that literally every addition he made last summer has already been jettisoned by the Penguins. If they actually go through with a five-year, $16 million contract for Johnson with the hopes of playing him in a top-four role it would not be a shock to see them trying to get out of that contract before it expires as well.