Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.
First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.
Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.
The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.
He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.
Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be bad if it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.
The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).
The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.
In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.
With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.
Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).
That is not an encouraging trend.
Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).
With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.
It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.
The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.
The Penguins already have four centers under contract with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan in place. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that one of Brassard, Sheahan, or Cullen will see significant time on the wing.
Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.
Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past season.