The Penguins’ reported interest in Jack Johnson is baffling

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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.

[Related: Penguins ship Hunwick, Sheary to Buffalo in cap-clearing trade]

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.

More NHL Free Agency:
PHT Power Rankings: The top-20 NHL Free Agents
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Kings agree to terms on three-year deal
• John Carlson gets $64 million payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.